Idea of being a vet often starts in early childhood

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Published 14/01/2017 | 00:00

I wanted to work with animals from an early age.
I wanted to work with animals from an early age.

If you ask a roomful of vets how many of them always knew that they wanted to be a vet, something like 50% of them will put up their hands. This is an astonishingly high figure, and it would be interesting to know if a similarly high percentage applies to other professions and careers. It seems that there must be something about caring for animals that gives many people an innate sense that they want to spend their lives doing it.

I have a very clear memory of developing my ambition early in life. Between the ages of four and five, I rattled rapidly through a series of ideas before confirming that I wanted to be a vet.

First, at the age of four, I wanted to be a saint. This apparently altruistic ambition was probably prompted by the fact that my parents had taught me that if I was a good boy, I'd be given a sweetie. By extension, a saint would surely be inundated with an endless supply of sweeties. This was an appealing concept for a young child with a sweet tooth.

My second ambition was to be a clown. I'd been given a fancy dress clown suit as a Christmas present, and I enjoyed it so much that it seemed like a logical career. It's interesting to speculate whether my media work, especially on television, is in some way a version of clowning. I try to be reasonably serious, but perhaps there is some deep needed desire for public attention. I'd probably need to see a therapist to sort that one out. In any case, after tiring of wearing the clown suit, I stopped wanting to be one.

My third ambition was getting closer: I wanted to own a pet shop. I'd clearly decided that I liked animals and I wanted to be around them. I loved visiting pet shops as a young child, seeing the various creatures for sale, and spending time interacting with them. But as time passed, I realised that if I was selling the animals, I'd never get to know them well. And the route to becoming a pet shop owner wasn't obvious to a five year old.

And so it was that by the age of five, I'd arrived at my ultimate ambition: I wanted to be a vet. My parents seemed to like this one, telling me that I'd need to work hard at school, but that if I wanted to do it, it was certainly possible. I settled happily with this idea. Over my years at school, I was often told that I ought to have a "Plan B" in case I wasn't able to be a vet, but I never entertained that concept: I was going to be a vet, and that was that.

Like many other vets, I have no idea where my desire to join the profession came from. There are no vets in my family circles, and my parents were not avid pet keepers. I didn't have my own puppy and kitten until I was six years old, already a budding veterinary enthusiast.

I did have three relatives who may have influenced my decision.

Uncle Gavin was a field biologist, working for the British Antartic Mission, studying penguins at the South Pole. He used to give us slide presentations of the birds on the ice, explaining their complex behaviour and interesting idiosyncrasies.

Aunt Fenella was also a biologist, but she worked as a secondary school teacher. She had a fascination with nature, and she used to take me on bird spotting walks early in the morning. One of my clearest memories, around the age of seven or eight, was going with Fenella on a winter walk in the Scottish Highlands just after dawn, and coming across a family of red squirrels gambolling in the freshly fallen snow.

Uncle John was a medical doctor, but he had a penchant for caring for animals. When he retired at the age of fifty, he became a passionate animal advocate, campaigning energetically on their behalf. He was staunchly vegan, and his particular focus of action was against zoos in China, where live animals such as calves are fed to predators such as lions for the entertainment of visitors.

So it could be said that I share the genetic background of these three animal enthusiasts, and as I grew older, their pro-animal influence also had an impact on me. But what was it that gave me, like many other vets, an almost inborn knowledge that I wanted to be a vet?

The most appropriate word to describe this is a vocation, which is derived from the Latin word for "calling". This is an interesting idea which has two possible definitions.

First, the traditional, religious explanation: that God creates some people with the divine intention that they go on to become vets, just as He creates people to become doctors, architects, and any number of other roles in society. The second, secular explanation probably fits easier with most people's current understanding of the world: some individuals are born with particular skills, likes, dislikes, tendencies and penchants that makes them feel especially drawn to a field of work. Perhaps many vets know from early in life that they like animals and that they want to help them. If this is combined with a curiosity about how animals work, the natural career path is to study veterinary, and then to become a vet. So the calling to be a vet may be more to do with a coincidental blend of personality attributes than anything else.

That said, as Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, "Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous".

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