A Half Century!
OVAID's CEO reflects on being a qualified vet for 50 years!
This article was written at the request of the veterinary press.
In this particular year, bell bottom trousers and tie-dyed shirts are fashion essentials, news of the Watergate Affair breaks, the Vietnam war ends, and the BIC lighter was born.
Most of you reading this random set of facts will have no idea that this was 50 years ago - 1973 the year that I graduated from Bristol Veterinary School and as a super confident but wet-behind-the-ears vet, was released onto the unsuspecting pet owning general public!
Those 50 years have passed too quickly but have given me endless enjoyment as my career as a mixed practice vet developed, interspersed with many heartbreaks of course as well as good smatterings of stress, traumas, and despair but all overridden by the joy of doing something I loved and did not even consider a job for the most part - more an enviable way of life.
It seems trite to recall the joy of bringing new life into the world, perhaps being able to re-assure a traumatised owner, the contentment of delivering a yellow-stained lamb amidst the scratchy straw in the warmth of a lambing shed at 2 a.m. or the masochistic pleasure of treating a milk fever cow in a field as the sun rises on a crisp autumn morning when everyone else in the world seems to be asleep.
1973 saw me enter an assistantship at the long gone Messrs Parsons & Campbell of Exeter St Launceston in Cornwall and in 1979 was superseded by the start of a 24-year stint as practice owner in Devon and then in 2003 with the sale of the practice, a return to the fold of a multi-person mixed practice with a view to abandoning the arduous night rotas and slowly retiring gracefully.
Not the most relevant or adequate forerunner to launching yourself into a completely new wildlife career 7000 miles away from rural Cornwall you would guess but that is exactly what fate had in store for me when, in 2009 I spent the summer volunteering at an orangutan rehabilitation centre in Sabah, Borneo.
My six weeks at the orangutan rehabilitation centre proved truly life-changing. The orangutans were more than I had ever anticipated, of course, gentle and endearing but deep, thoughtful, amusing, and worryingly vulnerable. I felt that they were reaching out to me and I could not walk away; what I had undertaken as an amusing self-indulgence was turning into an obsession. When you look deep into the eyes of an orangutan you see its soul and it captures your heart.
A few weeks after returning from Borneo a very surprising email dropped into my inbox. I re-read the email for the second time with a strange mixture of feelings- excitement, incredulity, trepidation, disbelief, but even as I scanned it yet again I knew that my answer would be yes. Sitting at my desk in rural Cornwall after another depressing day of tuberculin testing consigning more unlucky cows to the abattoir and their owner a step further into depression I could not believe my luck. Just three months after returning to the UK I was being asked to travel back to Sepilok in Sabah to act as the centre’s sole charge veterinary surgeon caring for its 50+ orangutans. I was full of enthusiasm, my wife was trepidatious, what could possibly go wrong?
For the last 14 years, I have worked almost exclusively with orangutans spending periods of several months at a time working within the veterinary teams of the rescue and rehabilitation centres in Borneo and Sumatra and I can say without hesitation that I have had even more job satisfaction in those years than in my previous veterinary career. I had managed to launch myself onto a completely new career path at the age of 60 and the prospects seemed exciting and stretched ahead like an open road.
Deforestation resulting in loss of habitat and the resultant inevitable increased human-orangutan conflict has seen orangutan numbers plummet continuously in the last 100 years. Today we estimate that there may only be 75,000 orangutans surviving and this number decreases year by year. In the last 20 years, orangutan habitat has been reduced by 80% despite the efforts of conservationists and those working to rescue, rehabilitate, and hopefully return a proportion of the species to the wild.
In 2014 my wife Sara, who has trained as a lay veterinary nurse and I, established the charity Orangutan Veterinary Aid (OVAID). Moving from our original base in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo we had come to recognise the urgency of the plight of the orangutan in Indonesia. Malaysian Borneo forests had already been raped by the well-established massive palm oil companies but in Indonesia the process was a few years behind and deforestation was still accelerating. This meant that compared to the 2-3 orangutans rescued in Sabah each year, rescue centres in Indonesia had an intake of 2-3 every few weeks. Whilst Indonesian orangutans are technically owned by the Indonesian Government there is no financial support for the rescue and rehabilitation of displaced or pet orangutans with the result that all centres are NGO or charity-run. The consequence of this is that budgets are stretched and any centre’s financial priorities lie understandably with providing the essential infrastructure including buildings, cages, food, keepers’ wages, etc. The veterinary budget comes a long way down this long list and this fact was highlighted to Sara and I when asked to see a newly graduated orangutan vet’s emergency equipment we were presented with a day pack rucksack containing a few syringes, an out of date bottle of penicillin and a handful of simple instruments.
We realised that here was an opportunity for us to not only use our professional skills but with our contacts to help supply these dedicated young vets with the veterinary equipment they lacked. Orangutan Veterinary Aid was born and the prospects of my retirement sailed out the window.
Without Sara, I would have achieved nothing but working as a team together we have built our completely voluntary run charity and delivered an estimated £400,000 of medicines and equipment to over 25 wildlife rescue organisations in Indonesia and Malaysia over the last 9 years.
This has taken perseverance and a thick skin but could also not have been achieved without ongoing help from fellow vets, practices, and the generosity of many commercial companies in the veterinary sector in the U.K. The companies are too numerous to mention all individually (check out our website www.ovaid.org for a list!) but we must mention our longest and most dedicated supporter J.A.K. Marketing Ltd whose generosity has helped us beyond measure and without whose support we would not have achieved many of our goals.
Throughout my career, I have been lucky to have worked with vets who have selflessly shared their knowledge and advice allowing me to grow both in confidence and skill sets. This support, especially at the outset of one’s career, is so important and without it can leave you floundering and lacking the confidence to progress. I feel that it is important to try to give back a little of the generosity that one has received in one’s career.
At Orangutan Veterinary Aid we have recognised this and whilst our core remit is to provide essential equipment we now concentrate equally on providing training and backup to the often newly graduated and inexperienced wildlife vets. In 2019 we established a scholarship to bring young Indonesian orangutan vets to the U.K. for an exchange of ideas and learning opportunities and in the last 12 months we have facilitated two practical workshops, one in Sumatra and one this summer in Kalimantan, Borneo.
A chance encounter with specialist veterinary dentist Gerhard Putter who is head of maxilla facial and dentistry at Dick White Referrals in Cambridge has led to a firm friendship and a mutual desire to improve the dentistry facilities and skills of the vets in the major rescue centres in Indonesia. Spending a week in Sumatra with us in November 2022 and undertaking practical dentistry with 6 vets galvanised what all three of us would like to achieve - a learning opportunity for the vets and an improvement in welfare for the orangutan. Gerhard’s enthusiasm fits perfectly with our charity aims.
In August this year the charity facilitated an 8-day workshop in Kalimantan where Gerhard accompanied by fellow wildlife vets Aleksandr Semjonov anaesthetist from the University of Estonia and Laurent Locquet cardiologist from Dick White Referrals operated on a number of orangutan and sun bears teaching 10 veterinarians in all three subjects. We see this as a step towards possibly establishing an online academic programme in several subjects leading to further workshop opportunities.
The charity is currently seeking sponsors for this primarily dental-orientated programme and any enquiries should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. More details of the charity can be found on our website www.ovaid.org or our social media outlets.
Fifty years have not dented my enthusiasm for a profession that may be currently troubled but which has given me so many unseen opportunities and an ability to assist in what may be niche areas but nevertheless, to bring about some impact. There can be nothing worse than sitting back and declaring in a resigned voice that nothing can be done, that there is no future. The future is out there, grasp it today - just in case you don’t make the 50 years!