Massey Alumnus takes vet skills from Te Awamutu to the world

Dr Young getting to ride and swim with an asian elephant while filming for the ABC Television show 'Food Bowl' on the Mekong river in northern Laos in 2014

Growing up in the Waikato, James Young never imagined he would one day be in China keeping 50,000 cattle healthy or performing a rectal exam on a four-tonne elephant in South Africa, but he’s living proof that variety is a big part of a veterinary career.

“When I left university and started working as a dairy vet back in Te Awamutu, I don’t think I considered an international career,” Dr Young says. “But, as luck would have it, after a year as a new graduate I got a phone call asking if I wanted to go to China and help set up large scale dairy farms for Fonterra. I think I was just in the right place at the right time, and they needed someone quickly.”

“My clinic manager was supportive, so within a week I had a visa and jumped on a plane at the end of 2007 with a about 50kg of veterinary equipment, drugs… basically prepared for anything! It was one hell of an adventure. I remember my first day, vaccinating a large herd in minus 20 degrees Celsius! My bones hurt, and the vaccine kept freezing between rows of cattle!”

The planned two-month stay, ended up turning into nearly a year, with Young hooked on international work, returning to do other projects frequently in China. In 2014, Young was responsible for 50,000 cattle and 100 veterinarians and breeders as a chief veterinarian. It was a heavy workload, but the job’s in his blood.

“Both my father and grandfather were vets, and my mum was a nurse, and a vet nurse, so I grew up either always in and around veterinary clinics,” Dr Young says. “I think from about the age of three I was going on vet calls with dad. I spent a lot of time on farms as a kid and loved working with livestock. In the latter years of high school I thought I would give vet school at Massey a go.”

“I was told it would be very difficult to get in and this just made me even more determined. A veterinary career was attractive for me because it seemed interesting and challenging, had an element of working outside and importantly - working with farmers. I was also drawn to the veterinary career because you could travel and work – the skills were translatable cross-borders. The vets I knew were well respected in their communities and I really looked up to them.”

In 2004, he secured a place on an international vet student trip called SYMCO in South Africa.

“This was a highlight of my student experience, and along with 90 vet students from around the world we toured multiple game parks and got up close and personal with wild cheetah, elephant, lion and rhino, that had been darted for sampling, pregnancy testing and health checks. I convinced the wildlife vet manager to let me do a rectal exam on a heavily sedated four-tonne wild elephant.”

His adventurous spirit fitted in well with the veterinary school ethos.

“The vet school was well known as a work hard and play hard environment. We had loads of social events planned out - strategically timed to avoid exams. We also used to collaborate on student conferences with other vet schools in Australia.”

Dr Young working with farmers and district veterinary officers in southern Cambodia to improve cattle nutrition and disease control led to significantly more for many project smallholder households in 2016.

Getting back there

After his first Asia work experience, Dr Young started looking for ways to get back into the region. 

“I talked to a lot of people and it became clear vets in Asia were needed to work on large scale disease control programs, so I was encouraged to upskill in the field of epidemiology.”

Dr Young started a Master of Veterinary Public Health Management at the University of Sydney in 2009, which led, three years later, to work with the Mekong Livestock Research team in a project manager role, working on research projects in Cambodia and Laos. The role required his wife relocate and him to relocate to Singapore. “These projects were designed to research ways we could improve transboundary animal disease control, including Foot-and-mouth disease in the Mekong region,” he says. 

The experience ignited Young’s further interest in learning more about how livestock disease control is connected to wider food insecurity and poverty issues in the region. He started the PhD in early 2013 and completed it part-time over four and a half years, while employed full-time working as project manager.

“My PhD focused on how to improve disease control and biosecurity in smallholder farms and their wider communities in Cambodia. I was particularly interested in taking a new ‘change management’ approach to an old problem. Why don’t farmers vaccinate? What are the barriers to improved biosecurity? Do we need a novel approach? Mostly the research focused on FMD ( foot and mouth disease) as this is a major problem in the region. 

“From our research, we were able to show that smallholder farmers’ knowledge level of disease risk and prevention was extremely low (almost absent), and this needed to be addressed to allow any disease control programs to have a chance of sustainable momentum and success.”

Alongside this work, since 2013, he has been an Animal Health Economics consultant for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) at the Regional Asia and Pacific office based out of Bangkok. 

“I found working in diverse cultures challenging, rewarding and enriching. Some of the people we were working with had a very low annual income under US $1,000 per annum or about NZ $1450 , so it’s amazing and humbling to see people who are so happy and generous with their time and welcoming for help. I’ve found in some of these developing countries, especially those that have experienced recent war, there is a massive need for basic animal husbandry, nutrition and animal health.”

Dr Young and fellow veterinarian Sharie Avisio treating a dog with severe mange in Luang Prabang, northern Laos in 2013.

Current roles and hopes for the future

Dr Young is also interested in technology to help farmers identify and improve biosecurity, so he started developing farmer extension content with the aim of getting it online and scaled out widely and rapidly. In 2017, he released the first farmer course in New Zealand called ‘Close The Gate’ which is a online training tool designed in response to the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak that hit the headlines in July 2017. The course is designed to be completed on a smart phone, and even be undertaken on the back of a quad bike while a farmer waits for the cows to walk up the race.

He currently works for a Hamilton based firm called Simcro as their Asia sales manager, which means lot of travel. 

“I get to see a lot of new places, although a lot of time is spent on aeroplanes and in airports! It’s great working with a Kiwi team again. I think there is more and more opportunity for Kiwi trained veterinarians to work in Asia. By 2050 the world will need 70 percent more food to feed a population of 9.6 billion people.”

Massey Contact Centre Mon - Fri 8:30am to 4:30pm 0800 MASSEY (+64 6 350 5701) TXT 5222 Web chat Staff Alumni News Māori @ Massey