Today, I present TV programmes. Not what you might call a ‘proper’ job and not something I ever set out to do. It sort of happened by accident. But it’s not a bad fit for my kind of brain – curious but with a short attention span. I struggle with reading (much prefer watching) and I have picked up most of what I now know from observing other people far more gifted than me. Fathoming out how and why things do what they do is a constant quest and I love to get folk excited about super cool, but everyday stuff that they (we?) tend to take for granted. I get a buzz from trying to make the complicated easier to digest.
As a kid, I only ever wanted to be a farmer or a vet, preferably both. Money was a major issue when I was growing up, so a farm was never going to happen. But, I blagged my way in to the world’s second oldest vet school and qualifying as a fully-fledged animal mechanic is the most impressive thing I have ever done. I can hardly believe I managed it. Neither can those who tried to teach me at school. It didn’t go terribly well. But, I loved the five years I spent at the Royal Veterinary College – the perfect mix for me of heady science and hands-on.
My first job was working for the PDSA vet charity followed by ‘mixed’ practice in the beautiful Surrey Hills treating all creatures great and small, but mostly pets and horses. Later, I ran a clinic in Berkshire (part of a large, multi-centre vet service) where I developed not only my scalpel-wielding skills but also a better understanding of humans. Increasingly, I am convinced that the one species vets really need to know about, is people. Over the years, I have become increasingly fascinated by anthrozoology – the relatively new science of human-animal interaction. It’s an important subject and one that’s central to protecting the wellbeing of animals we care about. And, not just kept animals like dogs, cats and cows. Anthrozoology is also key to solving the growing number of wildlife conflict and conservation challenges.
In 2007, I joined the RSPCA as its Chief Veterinary Adviser and established a new science department dedicated to improving the welfare of pets, working animals and animal athletes. For three years, my band of brilliant boffins worked really hard to raise awareness about the serious, widespread and largely ignored welfare issues suffered by huge numbers of purebred dogs as a result of the way they are bred. A personal landmark was helping to convince the BBC to axe Crufts after 40 years because of its historic role in the problems. The fight to prevent avoidable disability, deformity and disease goes on. Dogs deserve better.
So, I love animals (of course) and, more broadly, biology, but I was brought up in an engineering family. Spanners were cherished possessions when I was a lad, and they still are. So, I also love machines. These three interests have defined my career which, true to the definition of that word, has been a bit all over the place. There’s never really been a plan. As I say, wrong kind of brain.
Working in television was never on my radar until, one morning, ITV broadcast a feature celebrating fat cats. At the time, I had just set up a weight watchers clinic for pets – a UK first, I think. Obesity is a massive welfare problem in pets, just as it is in us. So, I rang the Channel to vent my frustration at their decision to run such an irresponsible item. A few weeks later, a very lovely producer convinced me, against my better judgement, to be a guest on the show, to sit on the sofa, and to put things straight.
Genuinely, I was amazed by the reaction from viewers. For me, it was a major wake-up call. It sounds ridiculous, but I had never even considered the power of TV to change the way people think about, and behave towards, other animals. My focus had always been on working in practice as an animal doctor GP. But, in just a few minutes on TV, I had been able to reach more people than I would see in my consulting room in a lifetime. So, the following morning, I made a decision to learn more about the Media. One thing led to another and the rest, as someone once said, is history. That one phone call changed my life. It sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s true.
Over the last 20 years or so, I have worked on many live events, documentaries and series covering an eclectic mix of subjects from dogs to DNA to diggers – an unusual mix of pets, natural history, popular science and engineering. And, along the way, we’ve managed to grab a few gongs, which is cool, including a BAFTA for my anatomy series ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’. Daring to dissect some of the world’s most iconic animals on prime time TV generated quite a conversation.
Talking to a TV camera is a bit weird. So, to save my sanity, I also produce programmes. Most of the time, I do a bit of both. I only work on projects that fascinate me and I like new challenges. I am especially interested in multi-platform projects. I still find it amazing that when I made that first call to ITV, the ‘Web’ was still 18 months away. Who would have thought back then that, one day, I would host a live, online event from Zambia streaming images 24 hours a day of a wild hippo feast? Not me. Not anyone!
Desks don’t do it for me. I prefer to be out and about, or in my workshop, with my sleeves rolled up and my hands stuck in. Getting deeply dirty is a good thing. It makes me smile. I like to ‘make’, ‘do’ and ‘mend’ and I love my workshop. Guess it’s in my DNA. I drive a 32 year old Land Rover that I rescued as a wreck – just one of my many engineering adventures over the years. The most ambitious was building a helicopter.
The kind of work I do means I spend quite a lot of time away, which my friends think is one of the great things about my job, and not because they want me to see the world! I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to some of the most extraordinary places on Earth. Inevitably, I have had some scrapes. Being abandoned at Everest base camp was ‘interesting’. Being head-butted by a crocodile isn’t something I am keen to experience again.
So that’s me, I guess. Vet. Science Explorer. Petrol Head.