If you are a frequent reader of my blogs, you will no doubt expect this to be a serious discussion of the portrayal of veterinary surgeons in literature and popular culture over the ages, with particular emphasis on the changing attitudes within and about the profession – from the condescending paternalism of Siegfried Farnon to the chummy first-name terms of modern Emmerdale vets.
You certainly wouldn’t be expecting a run-down of the coolest vets I have seen in TV shows in an ultimately futile attempt to discover our own version of Indiana Jones.
However, I have learned in my time that surprising audiences is a valid approach to blogging, and so with that in mind… BOO! Let’s go find our Indy.
An uncommon commodity
It’s rare – vets don’t make for exciting characters in the way cops and doctors do, it seems. But a a little thrill always runs down my spine when a vet crops up in something I’m watching or reading.
“One of us,” I think. “That could be me. I could be that person, right now, dragged into this exciting story. There’s more to veterinary life than consulting and anal glands, look what happened to this one.”
I have used this sort of logic as the basis for a few of my novels, but today we’re going to talk about vets that have sent the little thrill down my spine when they turned up on the screen.
I originally intended this to be a top 10 of favourite fictional vets, but it turns out there aren’t nearly that many cropping up in popular fiction. So, I’ve made it a top 3 instead.
Now, let’s get this out of the way first – one vet, of course, looms above all others when we think of fictional vets. The mighty James Herriot towers over all other portrayals of vets, and the books were so pitch-perfect it has rendered redundant most attempts to have a vet as a central character ever since (although this hasn’t stopped me trying in Soul Purpose, Past Tense and Once Bitten).
I think we’ll take Mr Herriot as read in this list, as I’d like to delve into some less well-known characters.
Since Alf Wight’s work, vets in fiction have largely been relegated to bit-parts and side characters, but they have been no less interesting for that. Before we get in to my top 3 favourite stethoscope-wielders, here’s a few honourable mentions…
I have heard people say “If only they could talk to you, your job would be so much easier” so many times now the phrase has basically lost any meaning for me, except to suggest that as vets we get so much out of a physical examination I wonder if animals telling us how they felt might actually be actively misleading.
I suspect most patients would say something like “Where are you going with that thermometer?” or “You’re not sticking that bloody needle in me”, so I’m not sure the pressures of the job would be greatly eased.
It’s awkward enough having owners arguing about their pet’s symptoms in the consulting room (“What do you mean he hasn’t eaten? He had scrambled egg this morning.”) without having the pet itself chiming in.
Anyway, I decided not to include the eminent doctor in this list because his job is so far removed from anything I recognise as veterinary work that I don’t really think of him as a vet. In that sense, he may actually count as the veterinary profession’s Indiana Jones, as he’s about as close to vetting as Dr Jones is to archaeology. But Indy’s cooler and has better lines.
Terminator 3 was not a good film, but compared to the recent sequels it’s starting to look like a classic. Imagine my excitement when one of the main characters turned out to be a veterinary surgeon, and a kick-ass one at that.
Sadly, the fact the film is pants, and the further fact Kate’s history was changed to physician in later films – because apparently being a vet isn’t exciting enough – are enough to bump her out of my top list.
Dr Gerry Harding
I had to Google the name of this blink-and-you’ll-miss him vet from Jurassic Park. He is present a teeny bit more in the novel, but basically has no bearing on the story whatsoever – other than to make us feel sad for a poorly triceratops.
However, he raised the exciting possibility there may someday be vets applying poultices to pteranodon abscesses, or squeezing T-rex anal glands, and for that, Gerry, I salute you.
Better Call Saul
I didn’t even take the time to Google this chap’s name – he’s a vet of dubious morals who stitches up criminals and hands out less-than-legal jobs to Mike, the multi-talented, conflicted and occasionally murderous ex-cop.
I can’t say I like this vet very much, but he does seem to care about animals, and anything connected to Breaking Bad basically makes me happy, so he’s getting a mention here.
Right, honourable mentions out of the way, here’s my top-3 list, in ascending order:
3. Dr Hamster
This is a relatively late addition to the list – Dr Hamster is the veterinarian in the world of Peppa Pig.
Let’s leave aside the slightly confusing fact that, technically, everyone in the show is of a species that would traditionally fall under the veterinary remit, and consider instead that Dr Hamster (voiced by the excellent Morwenna Banks, doing her best impression of the late, great Caroline Aherne) is slightly stupid, slightly selfish, but ultimately is very kind and, most importantly, has a helicopter.
My affection for Dr Hamster may have grown because Peppa Pig spares me from the misery of In the Night Garden, or Thomas the Bloody Tank Engine, in that it is often genuinely funny, but mainly I love Dr. Hamster because of the way she says ‘Tiddles the Tortoise’. And the helicopter thing.
2. Hershel Greene
I have had my issues with The Walking Dead’s resident veterinarian and his unnecessary surgical procedures, but he’s a a good man to have around in a crisis (such as a zombie epidemic), big-hearted, caring, and tough.
He manfully loses a leg without so much as a word of complaint, and although his fates are different depending on the medium you absorb your apocalypse through, he’s a fighter to the end.
Hershel isn’t my favourite character in The Walking Dead (cough, cough, Carol, cough), but he reminds me my skill set will have more use than that of a financial services manager when the zombies come – and that makes me feel all warm inside.
1. Mr Chinnery
Ah, my all time favourite portrayal of a veterinary surgeon ever. I discovered The League of Gentlemen during my first year as a vet, and his always-professional demeanour (“Was he very old?”) coupled with the utter blackness and hilarity of his mistakes made me feel a heck of a lot better about the difficulties I was facing on that very steep learning curve.
Making the most terrible mistakes imaginable and playing them for laughs helped me get a little perspective on my own errors (thankfully, nothing like the “Kes” incident, or the tortoise, or the hamster). Sometimes, you have to take a step back from the darkness and laugh. Thank you, Dr Chinnery, and I hope you have better luck in the future.
Now it’s your turn – I’m sure I have missed many. Any favourites?
Let’s find the greatest fictional vet ever. Other than, y’know, that one.