The recent publication of the exotic-pet mystery and memoir Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor (or, What Friends Feathered, Furred, and Scaled Have Taught Me about Life and Love) by Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP (avian), gave me a chance to sit down at CVC San Diego and ask her everything her book left me wanting to know more about. In this Q&A, I asked Hess—a practice owner and TV personality as well as avian specialist—more about the mysterious rash of sugar glider deaths she investigated as well as her experiences as a busy business owner, veterinarian and mom.
Click on the videos to watch Hess herself or read the edited transcript—your choice!
Brendan Howard: Were you worried that team members or clients from your practice—Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, New York—would see themselves in the book?
Dr. Laurie Hess: One or two people have been upset, but, no, I'm not critiquing any category of pet owner or single person. There are clients who've approached me who think they are the people in the book, and what I explain to them is, the characters may be partially based on the people in the book, but there's no single character who represents one single client in my practice. We explain at the beginning of the book that these characters are composites of real people, so any character is not based on one single person. They're based on multiple people I've worked with.
We also changed all the names along with the species of the animals and the names of the animals. The only thing that's real in the book is my name, my kids' names and my husband's name. The editors make you do that, and boy you really do it a bunch of times.
Howard: A working relationship with one technician in the book is particularly powerful, and she eventually leaves your practice to work across the country. I'd love to know whether the bond between you and the tech who left is just as strong as it was.
Hess: That is definitely a real tech. She was with me for 15 years. When I opened the practice, it was just the two of us, and it was our dream to have the practice. And her leaving was a little difficult, because it wasn't initially as amicable as it was portrayed in the book. I was very upset that she was leaving, and it really had to do with some personal stuff going on in her life, but she was not happy with our practice manager, and there were some issues. She didn't move far away; she's actually still in my town.
I didn't have contact with her for a while, but we are now good friends. Things are better now, and I want her to read the book. I'm very sad I don't work with her anymore, and I'm still happy that she's my friend, and I value the years we worked together very, very much.
Howard: You describe some tough encounters with a particular veterinary student working for a short time in your hospital. About one instance in which you saw him snidely insult another student there, you wrote, “This final demonstration of detachment and insensitivity confirmed for me my decision to let him go.” Why did you want to tell that story?
Hess: For me, the thing was, he was very callous about things. And if I saw him reacting to someone else in my practice like that, I shudder to think how he would react to a client.
I think when you're working with exotics and the stakes are so high—the animals are so delicate and they die often, and there are a lot of children and families involved because these are little pets and they don't live that long—you really need to be sensitive and compassionate. I thought this person didn't have those qualities. And having him in my practice, he was misrepresenting my staff.
Howard: Some of my favorite anecdotes in the book are those with the judgy local neighbor and stay-at-home mom “Katherine.” You feel judged by her about your capabilities as a mom and a very busy doctor and business owner. Can you tell me a little bit about where she comes from?
Hess: Katherine is a composite of multiple people in my neighborhood. I live in a fairly affluent area where very few women work. And I have struggled for my entire life as a mother along with balancing career and family.
It's challenging when you open a practice and you’re the sole owner; you have to be “on” 24/7. I had a partnership with my husband that once I opened the practice, I was going to have be there for the practice and not around as much. That was something we decided together.
It was difficult when women in my neighborhood were judging me when I wasn't always on the soccer field or I couldn't come to that parent-teacher meeting because I had to deal with my patients and my practice and emergencies. It was frustrating that they felt the need to share their feelings and comments when they really didn't understand the dynamics of my family—and it was really none of their business.
Over the years I've learned to accept the fact that everyone runs their life the way they want to. I don't let it bother me as much. Certainly there are moments of regret, but I've gotten used to it.
Howard: You write, “I can balance my career, my health, my kids and my marriage. It’s all about knowing how to manage everyone’s needs—who needs what when and how to give it to them.” What does that look like for you?
Hess: You really need to talk to yourself at times and say, “OK, I can do this.” It's self-coaching. And it's sort of a grounding, where you remind yourself that you're there for many different reasons and different roles.
Yes, I'm a veterinarian, but I'm a mother and I'm a wife and I'm a friend and I'm diabetic, and it's often overwhelming when you look at the whole big picture. If you can just categorize and compartmentalize a little bit and take it one day at a time, it's much easier to do.
I'll tell you, there's no point at which I've felt that I've achieved this balance, and I'm forever juggling, but I think you get used to that feeling and just realize you're doing the best you can, and that's really all you can do.
Howard: In the middle of a big real-life mystery at the heart of the book—with sugar gliders arriving lethargic and dying in veterinary practices up and down the East Coast—you wind up working closely with a sugar glider breeder during your investigation. And when other veterinarians and pet owners get wind of this, you get some negative attention on TV news, the internet and phone calls to your practice. Tell me about that.
Hess: A lot of that was based on real life. In the beginning I didn’t understand the business model of the company I was working with to solve the sugar glider mystery. I thought, “Who goes to a mall to sell pets and then closes up and moves somewhere else?” I thought it was really tacky, and that's what everybody thought.
But the more I got to know this company, the more I realized their policies are amazing. They take the email addresses of the people who are purchasing their pets. They make them visit four times before they sell the pet to the owner. And they really follow up with them. If you go to a pet store, they don't do that at all, but no one blames the pet store.
The only reason they did this kiosk thing was that they could only sell a certain number of sugar gliders in any one geographic location. It's not like people were purchasing sugar gliders left and right.
I actually was amazed that this company was so responsible when there were problems with the sugar gliders dying. They took responsibility for those pets; they paid their medical bills; they replaced them if they died.
It was frustrating to me that colleagues of mine were judging this company when they really didn't have any information. These veterinarians were on TV panning this company. They should know better.
Howard: You walk a respectful line in the book between championing better exotic medical care and working with exotics breeders and the pet stores they service. Have you always been so measured?
Hess: I take a lot of flack at times for working with breeders. A lot of exotic pets are given up to rescues because they don't meet the needs of the pet owners who purchased them or adopted them, particularly birds. And it would be great to think every single exotic pet owner is going to go to a rescue and get their pet from that rescue. But it doesn't happen.
Pet stores don't necessarily sell puppies and kittens, but they sell guinea pigs and turtles and conures, and those are the animals that I treat. So I don't think it's fair to punish the animals based on the fact that they came out of a pet store. Those animals need care too. And I don't want to discourage people who go to pet stores and purchase those animals from seeking out good veterinary care.
So, yes, I definitely recommend that people go to rescue facilities and adopt those animals, but I think animals come from everywhere, and they all deserve good medical care regardless of where they're from.