Dr. Mike Paul: Tarzan may have started my veterinary career, but reality TV won’t finish it
It might seem strange for a veterinarian to admit this, but it was no picnic to be a dog or cat in my family when I was growing up. We had a series of pets, but I can’t recall ever taking them to a veterinarian for even the most basic care. Illnesses like canine distemper and panleukopenia were the norm, even though we didn’t know what they were. Treatment was pretty much restricted to providing comfort—once in a while we got lucky and they recovered.
So how does a kid from a family like mine come to be a veterinarian? There weren’t any literary or romantic influences on that choice. James Herriot was still just Alf Wight in Yorkshire; All Creatures Great and Small wasn’t published until the year I graduated.
So with no role models, no exposure to the profession and no literary examples, what external imagery influenced my interest in animals enough to steer me toward veterinary medicine? This will tickle you—my two biggest influences were the Tarzan series of my youth, with its stories of complex relationships with animals, and a late ’60s show called Daktari, in which a veterinarian treated animals at the fictional Wameru Study Centre for Animal Behaviour in East Africa.
Together Tarzan and Daktari stoked my fascination for animals to the point where I wanted to be able to provide help. I actually started working at a zoo in those years before veterinary school and planned to be a zoo veterinarian.
I barely knew a veterinarian until being accepted into veterinary school. But however unwittingly, two veterinarians came to influence me greatly.
In community college I worked as an attendant at a local zoo, and my favorite days were when the local veterinarian, Dr. Weiss, came to care for animals. I watched surgeries, autopsies and treatment involving everything from badgers to zebras.
I was hooked and the course was set. I would go to veterinary school! At this point I thought you just “went” to vet school and became a veterinarian. You know … you just showed up and started going to class, which would go on for a few years and then you’d be done. It wasn’t long before I learned the intimidating truth!
Another influence was Dr. J. E. Dale, who was already late in his career. Attention, trivia nerds! Dr. Dale played a role in the book In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the true-crime account of a grisly murder that took place in 1959 near Garden City, Kansas. After the book’s release, many of the people featured in the book became local celebrities. In the early ’60s I worked with Dale’s son and even dated his daughter.
Dr. Dale’s practice and his home (as was the norm in the time) were located on a prominent corner property. To me, the red brick house was a storybook setting—and it couldn’t have been further from my own humble upbringing. I drove by nearly daily and told myself, “If I become a veterinarian, I can have a nice house too.” That became my dream. A red brick house and my own veterinary hospital.
Today is different
What will influence the next generation? All of us meet youngsters who accompany their parents and pets to the veterinary clinic. Kids see what modern veterinarians do, what the modern facility is like and that a “typical veterinarian” is no longer typical.
Children accompanying their pets are more likely to meet a female veterinarian than a gray-haired man. Influences today that will surely guide future decisions are far more numerous and more diverse.
Leaving a reality TV legacy
Throughout my career I’ve witnessed the profession go to great lengths to gain public exposure, but perhaps we were whistling the wrong tune—quietly humming Bach while our audience was listening to Marilyn Manson.
So how do we reconcile the two? We continue our efforts to increase the visibility of the profession. Today there are numerous television reality shows catering to our customers. I’d argue that some of these shows are very well done, depicting veterinarians and veterinary practices at their best. Others present our profession in a bad light, where veterinarians do not make use of even the most basic principles. They show poor care and present poor medicine as a standard.
Is that the sort of image we want for our clients? Is that the influence we want to have on young people? I am happy that our profession is becoming more visible, but it is critical that we focus on enlightenment—not dramatics. After all, our image is our legacy. That legacy should remain a source of pride, no matter how humble its beginnings.