The Washington Monument
The Washington Monument

When I was at vet school in the nineties I reached fourth year, the last year of teaching at Glasgow, and realised I would graduate and not know anything about non-domestic animals.

There was to be a day of lectures, optional attendance, given by a well-respected RCVS specialist imported for that day. This was a week before final written exams, so not many people turned up, and a day’s rushed lectures is not enough to tackle your first rabbit, spider or snake in the real world. So I answered a battered and faded postcard advert on a noticeboard and flew off to Washington in the USA for a couple of months during that final holiday between the intensive fourth year and the lecture-free final year.

I learned a lot, living and breathing exotics for two months. I enjoyed experiencing the different way of life in America. He enjoyed teaching, too; I came back able to blood sample a huge range of animals, I had done a couple of zoo visits, and had performed surgeries from start-to-finish, which was a real boost to someone going in to the practical and demanding final year at Glasgow. I also felt better equipped when facing something completely unfamiliar!

I would encourage anyone to get extra training in a field they are not comfortable with should the opportunity pop up. I went over there interested but unfamiliar, and came back wanting to know more. Just those two months started me off being the “exotics guy” in town and led to more than 10 years of gradually building a reputation and significant knowledge and skill, as well as travelling to conferences and building a network of friends around the world.

Skip Nelson
Do you know Skip Nelson?

A strange side-effect of this that I only became aware of later in my career was that I had joined a club: People Who Knew Skip Nelson. Skip is the chap, an exotics specialist in Kirkland, Washington, who took me in, showed me the ropes and got me over my fear of the unknown.

As I have gone through life afterwards something may come up in conversation with a colleague and I may refer to something I saw there. “Did you see practice with Skip?” will be the next thing asked, and we’ll have something in common. A surprising number of people “know Skip”. It has been something to talk about in both interviews and over sandwiches. He’s not otherwise “well known” (as in famous) on this side of the Atlantic.

As a warning to newer members of the profession, another thing that makes me realise what a tiny profession we work in is the number of times I keep bumping in to people whether I like them or not. Past employers and colleagues I thought I had left behind will periodically pop up, and not just at conferences. It has happened a couple of times where I’m comfortably chewing through the day’s work and a familiar face hoves in to view around a corner being shown around on an interview, and once it happened where they were performing an official inspection!

The moral? It may be denounced as being “two-faced” but it pays to be nice, or at least professional, to everyone you work with; you will see them again at some point!

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