McGowan continues assistance animal fight

Andrew and his assistance dogs Chelsea Dog and Essie Girl at their encounter with former Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

ANDREW McGowan is a man who looks as though he has walked straight out of a poem by Banjo Patterson.

Sporting a wild grey beard to his chest, a long stockman coat and, most appropriately, a Blue Heeler by his side, the rough-living but eloquent local activist is nothing if not quintessentially Australian.

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“If I can, I try to put a smile on someone’s face wherever I go,” he said, having done just that to the young lady who had taken our coffee order.

“There’s so much negativity out there, and I just want to try and share a bit of joy.”

The young lady, who admitted that Andrew had “made her morning”, had been shown a photograph of one of Andrew’s proudest moments: sitting next to former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison while his beloved companion, Chelsea Dog, attempts to plant a ‘doggie kiss’ on ‘ScoMo’, both men laughing.

“Of all the things I’ve done, that was the moment at the top,” he said.

Andrew is quick to point out that his fondness for the encounter does not necessarily equate to a fondness for the former PM, or for politicians in general.

Rather it was about what that moment represented for Andrew, for his assistance animals, and for every person in need who Andrew had walked to Parliament House to represent; after a lifetime of being overlooked, finally someone was listening.

A survivor of abuse and trauma, Andrew speaks openly about his experiences and the struggle through the years to find a path through the pain and rediscover his strength and calling.

The breakthrough moment came when he finally was able to share his story with someone who listened, and said “I believe you.”

“That’s what we need,” Andrew said of his fellow survivors, “for people to hear our stories.”

Speaking with ease and openness, and sharing stories of his encounters with politicians, sports stars and social reformers, as well as the endless parade of characters he has met on the road from here to there, Andrew evokes much of the spirit that draws the most Australian of descriptors: ‘Bloke’, ‘Mate’, ‘Larrikin’, and perhaps more than any other, ‘Battler’.

So it is that Andrew now spends his days asking people to listen – not just to him, but to anyone with a struggle or a tragedy in their past or a need they cannot meet on their own.

To be a source of support and to offer hope to those battling with mental health issues, Andrew began ‘Powerful Son Revolution’, a charity that seeks nothing more or less than to find ways to show love to others in the community.

Through his own journey Andrew has discovered an amazing ally for improving wellbeing, staying safe and combating loneliness: his assistance dogs.

The benefit that he has experienced from having these constant companions by his side has meant that Andrew has discovered the strength to endure emotionally triggering situations on a daily basis, and at times they have saved his life.

“Hey Zeus here gets a little nervous when he can’t see me,” Andrew said, regarding his dark brown Staffie with affection.

“It’s not his anxiety, it’s that he worries about me.

“He takes care of me.”

From this realisation Andrew found the other part of his calling: to help prepare dogs for their own life as assistance animals, and be a part of connecting them with the people who need them.

Our conversation is suddenly interrupted when Hey Zeus, along with Golden Nugget, Essie Girl and their foster companion, the Greyhound Eight Ball, spot a local resident taking his own dogs for a walk and rush over all at once to greet them.

Unfortunately the dog-walker is less than enthusiastic about the attention and sternly lambasts Andrew for not keeping his dogs on a lead.

This prompts Andrew to attempt to explain their status as assistance animals – which means they are exempt from any requirement for leashes – but the conversation becomes heated, and both men disengage without reaching an understanding.

It is the first of two such confrontations that interrupt our conversation in Raymond Terrace, and is emblematic of exactly the kind of attitude that brought Andrew to speak to Port Stephens Council’s February meeting in the first place.

That recent appearance – in which he argued that council signage was not sufficient as it failed to explain the freedom of access granted to assistance animals – saw Andrew in a passionate state suggesting the council was potentially in breach of state legislation.

While this point was not conceded, Andrew grinned broadly as he shared an update from that meeting.

“We had a win with Port Stephens Council.”

In an email from Council staff to Andrew, Port Stephens Council stated that while not in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act, there is “room for improvement to better support persons in need of assistance animals within our community”.

“Two opportunities for improvement were identified throughout the investigation,” the letter read.

“1. Update Council’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan to promote awareness and understanding of assistance animals. This is to be actioned immediately.

“2. Update dog rule signage to clearly state that assistance animals are exempt from prohibition rules.

“This will be undertaken as new signage is installed or existing signage is replaced.”

When I ask, with some trepidation, whether Andrew sees himself as a ‘battler’ – as someone constantly ready to fight for a cause he believes in – he has no hesitation in saying yes.

“If I can go through moments like that and stand up for what’s right, that might make life better for someone who can’t do that.”

Andrew makes no claim to being especially strong or willful, or even being driven by vision or strategy.

“My strength comes from God – everything I have comes from God.

“He’s got me through to this place in my life, and he helps me everywhere I need to go.”

When I ask where that journey may take him from here, Andrew quotes a passage of scripture – Proverbs chapter three, verses eight and nine.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

“Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor.”

By Lindsay HALL

Andrew gathered with his current companions: Golden Nugget, Eight Ball, Hey Zeus, Essie Girl and her puppy, Precious Andy.

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