Military Veterinary Institute provides animal care on a shoestring budget


The role animals have in modern militaries is important and acknowledgement of this comes in the form of the SA Military Health Service’s (SAMHS’s) Military Veterinary Institute (MIVI) although its current commanding officer believes changes are urgently needed if it is to contribute meaningfully to the overall national defence effort.

Based in Potchefstroom, the MVI is commanded by Colonel Ruan Harris who took over leadership of the only element in the entire SA National Defence Force (SANDF) to have animals as its core duty. The animals are the dogs and horses used mainly in border protection, display and sometimes personal protection duties.

Harris took over command of the MVI last year from Colonel Paul van der Merwe and told the change of command parade in the North West town he saluted every person in the MVI for what they brought to the Institute. This included people cleaning kennels, guarding the unit at night, taking care of dogs and horses, rendering support services, spending hours working with dogs and puppies as well as spending long hours at shows and exhibitions promoting the image of the SANDF.

In official SANDF language the MVI is a level four SAMHS force structure element in the Tertiary Military Health Formation.

Instead of companies and platoons the MVI is made up of four wings – headquarters, training, clinical and operational. The current staffing level at MVI is 107 and Harris said there was “a severe shortage of scarce skills, especially veterinary officers and veterinary nurses”.

He attributes this shortage of essential personnel to remuneration saying the defence force does not pay these professions on the same scale as the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the SA Police Service. He maintains the MVI structure is antiquated and based on that of an animal hospital rather than a fully-fledged military unit.
“This must be addressed as the MVI cannot properly fulfil its mandate with a structure that is far too small,” he said adding both the restructuring and staff problems have been addressed on numerous occasions over the past 10 years.
“Both issues have not been sorted out and service delivery has suffered as a result with outsourcing providing a solution of some sorts.”

This sees the MVI currently with only two veterinarians – both based in the Western Cape – on its personnel strength for animal health services. Two more veterinarians are “vested” in the directorate Tertiary Military Health in Pretoria and compulsory community service veterinarians in Potchefstroom annually make up the full MVI veterinarian quota. Harris sees the situation as not being ideal in the Department of Defence context.

The situation is similar when it comes to veterinary nurses with two in Potchefstroom and one in the Western Cape.

The MVI operation wing prepares members for Operation Corona deployment, usually two at a time. They are tasked with supplying animal health services to dogs and horses deployed in the Musina mission area on South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe. The MVI complement for Corona is supposed to be a veterinary officer, veterinary nurse, canine/equine orderly and a farrier. The human resource shortage in MVI means only the orderly and farrier are deployed.