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So Many Other Things: The Reality of Veterinary Practice Part 14 - Ouroboros

Posted in So Many Other Things... @ Jul 17th 2019 - By Michael Weinhardt, Michael Weinhardt Photography
7.1. So Many Other Things: The Reality of Veterinary Practice Part 14: Ouroboros

Holding a mirror to the veterinary industry to show the realities you work with every day.

A photographic documentary that relates what working in a busy veterinary practice looks like - the highs, lows, challenges, day-to-day, unusual and extraordinary.

“If only vetting just consisted of treating sick animals. But it didn’t. There were so many other things.”

- James Herriot, If Only They Could Talk

The ability for a puppy like Bailey to bring warmth to a practice is palpable and the therapeutic value cannot be overstated. 15 March, 2018

Part 14 - Ouroboros*

Over time, people working in veterinary services seem to, if not must, develop various mechanisms for dealing with the complex demands of their work. Time is, of course, one way to find that perspective.

Philosophy is another. Thinking about the “why” of veterinary service and what it means to provide it is certainly something that staff at Brudine had thought about. The contemplation of life and death was prominent; these are the two states that any animal can have and the work that veterinary services workers do results in one or the other.

Mortality is difficult for many to reconcile and the human species, or at least many cultures within it, wage war against death, fighting for life and health and longevity through science. Losing the battle is hard. Are there many parts of our existence that are harder to contend with?

As a photojournalist, and perhaps as a person who has suffered from depression on and off for most of my life, I became a overly preoccupied with death, especially after Cosmo’s (So Many Other Things: The Reality of Veterinary Practice Part 10 - No Answers). I started focusing on the darkness of it more than was healthy. At the same time, I started interviewing staff and utilised those interviews to understand how veterinary services workers consider and deal with death, maybe selfishly to find a way for me to deal with it. And it did – I had a fundamental philosophical shift in how I thought about it. I don’t pretend to think that there are many veterinary services workers who focus on death the way I did but there might be some and Brudine’s collective wisdom might be useful for them.

Several staff echoed Nurse Skye Longley’s thoughts on life and death in veterinary services: “You are a major carer for these animals and, even though we do have a lot of sick animals, the majority of them get better. And even though we do euthanise a lot of animals, or they die on us, I reckon the statistics are that more go home alive and happy than have died. There are bouts of it where we have a ‘day of death’ where that’s not the case. But, overall, statistically the majority of them die at an old age from old diseases, not from an acute problem.”

Though Dr Fiona Starr says the sadder cases are the one, “that stick in your mind, that are emotionally tough,” she also says, “Even on the toughest days, where there seems to be endless sadness, you look back on the day and it really is just a small chunk of the day.”

Longley’s and Starr’s claims certainly feel right, if observation of the cases flowing through the practice is indicative. A scientific way to support the hypothesis would be to back it up with evidence, with statistics that delineate the number of deaths versus the number of animals that leave as healthy as they can be. I asked Starr and her business partner, Dr Deborah Williams, for these statistics – not to show them, just to justify my observations and staff perspectives.

In response, Starr says, “I have never actually thought about the statistics of how much of our day is centred around life versus death; to me, it’s all treatment. And for some pets, the best or only treatment is euthanasia.”

Williams adds, “Our job involves dealing with the continual ‘circle of life’ and though we do our best to make the ‘life’ part as comfortable as we can for our patients and the ‘passing’ part as easy as we can for client and patient we are not particularly interested in quantifying the details of this process.”

Williams’ view comes from a deeply personal perspective on death: “It’s important for everyone to realise death truly is part of life. In the not very distant past, and in many communities world-wide, death was much more ‘in your face’ as it was constantly happening around you. Our society now tries to pretend it doesn’t happen and no one talks about it openly anymore. This creates a ridiculous mystery around death that is wrong. Death is an integral part of being a living entity as it is inevitable and happens to all. When it’s hidden away it becomes more difficult to celebrate life.”

One of Dr Grace Butler’s cases powerfully illustrates the “circle of life”, and a vet’s role in it.

Dannielle and Al Green brought in a puppy, Belle, who became seriously ill five hours after being picked up from a breeder. They’d bought Belle for their daughter, Ellie, who had wanted a puppy for two years. Butler took the case but, despite her efforts, the diagnosed coccidiosis won the battle leaving her and the Greens with no choice but euthanasia.

Butler recalls: “When I put that puppy down, that was the shittest thing I’ve done. All I could think about was that little girl’s face. She had wanted a puppy for two and a half years and, when she got it, she had it for five hours and that was it. An innocent little girl who’s done nothing wrong, and I have to put her puppy down.”

Dannielle says, “The impact on the kids was quite devastating. The heartbreak of looking at your kids when their first puppy isn’t going to pull through and trying to explain to them what was happening was the hardest thing we have ever had to do.”

Several weeks later, the Green family brought a new puppy to the practice for vaccinations. The puppies name was “Grace”.

Dannielle says, “We decided the same day that Belle was gone that the best thing to do was to replace the puppy, to ease the pain for our two little kids.” Danielle suggested they call their new puppy, “Grace”, because, “Dr Grace did a great job trying to get Belle home to us,” and their daughter thought it was a great idea.

Danielle also says, “I just thought that taking the new puppy in to the clinic would be a nice thing to do as everyone at Brudine tried everything, and I am glad we did.I think it put a big smile on Dr Grace as it did for Ella when we got the second puppy. It was a nice way to end such a horrible experience.”

The ending and the beginning that a practice experiences with its clients and their pets is not unusual. Many owners will maintain their relationship with their veterinary practice and their vets over many pets, as part of the constant renewal of life.

And of course, for all the sadness that comes with the end of life, there is as much joy with its start. The therapeutic value of a new puppy in a practice can’t be overstated.

Wean, belonging to Brudine Nurse, Skye Longley, has been brought in very flat, not eating and with diarrhoea. She's in very poor shape, with a 10% chance of survival. 16 February, 2018.

Nurse Skye Longley picks up Wean. Three days ago, Wean was very ill and had a 10% chance of survival. Now she is well enough to complete healing at home. 19 February, 2018.

Bill Frost grieves the loss of Ziggy who has just passed away after a losing battle with a massive infection. 28 February, 2018.

Bill Frost with Budgie, who is in to get a blood test under anaesthetic to determine whether she has the same virus that her partner, Ziggy, possibly died from a week earlier. Budgie is given the all clear. 9 March, 2018.

Dr Gwen Shirlow examines Anthony Rogers' new puppy, Brooklyn, before administering vaccinations. 27 February, 2018

Dr Grace Butler with her healthy namesake puppy. Ellie Green (with stethoscope) had wanted a puppy for two and a half years but, when her parents bought her Belle several weeks earlier, Belle died shortly afterwards from coccidiosis. 21 February, 2018.

* Ouroboros on Wikipedia -


Click here to visit the 'So Many Other Things..' Blog Category to read more in the series

About Michael - in his words...


I make long-form photographic essays that are faithful to my subjects and their stories.

I have spent a decade in the USA, Peru, Cuba, and Australia, covering stories about people whose lives I can't not be interested in.

Most recently, I completed a photographic documentary about the reality of veterinary practice, called SO MANY OTHER THINGS. It was shot over a year and released on September 24, 2018.

Previously, I spent from 2012 to 2015 documenting music and friendship in an Australian metal band, FRANKENBOK. 

Other stories I've photographed over the last 10 years can be found in my Archive.

Contact Michael via: Website -  So Many Other Things


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