Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Dose of Reality

Sometimes things just fall into place while you remain totally unaware. Fate is too strong a word here but it does feel a bit whimsical. Here's what I mean.

A month ago I came across a veterinarian on Twitter: Emma Milne from England. After reading her thoughts on various animal welfare issues and seeing that she's written a few books, I reached out to ask if she'd be interested in participating in this blog. After she agreed, upon more research I found she'd been one of the vets featured on a British reality TV show called Vets in Practice from 1996 to 2003.

Here's where it gets interesting:

I lived in England from 1998 to 2001. When my family moved there I was in high school and watched Vets in Practice religiously, wanting to be a veterinarian and all. I soaked it up. I remember a blonde vet. . . and squinting at Emma's photo now, twenty years later, I remember her from the show. My teenage years have come full circle.

Folks, I am star-struck by a veterinarian.

When I told Emma this, in self-deprecation she laughed and called herself a "proper z-lister" these days. No matter. It's all about personal connections, right?

So that's my introduction to Emma Milne, veterinarian, author, speaker, and champion for animal welfare. Let's get to know her a little better, shall we?
Emma Milne
As a new veterinary graduate, Emma entered the work force in front of the entire UK while appearing on VIP, which followed a handful of vets in their daily lives, showcasing events ranging from treating animals to personal issues. The US (and the UK) has more of its share of reality TV now, including some vet shows like The Incredible Dr. Pol, which come with their own controversies. I asked Emma about her time on TV.

"In general I loved my time on VIP," she says. "It gave me opportunities that I never would have had.  Also in the sphere of welfare, it has let me reach many more animals and owners than I perhaps might have in practice. At the time, the show was very different to anything we'd had. We were all new graduates so of course we made mistakes and there were older vets who felt the show was detrimental and that it 'demystified' the profession. I am a huge fan of honesty and vets are only human. I think any show that shows the strains and stresses placed on us is good. My main problem was that the show didn't tackle the gritty subjects I wanted to tackle like tail docking, hunting, farm issues, and pedigree health issues. It was a bit too fluffy. In fact to this day I think there is a huge scope for some really hard hitting veterinary shows." 

"I am a huge fan of honesty and vets are only human. Any show that shows the strains and stresses placed on us is good."

Subsequent to her time on VIP, Emma has been able to take advantage of numerous media outlets as co-presenter on various TV specials, doing guest appearances, and as a guest expert, judge, and columnist. Emma says this has helped enormously in getting the word out about animal welfare. 

"I think VIP has been incredible for my welfare opportunities and I always think people in the media should do their utmost to use it for the biggest positive impact they can, be it for animals or humans," she says. "The pros are huge, like the satisfaction of changing perceptions and meeting incredible and inspiring people. The cons are that it's never easy to get across everything you want to, especially in short, live TV slots. Even the written word is hard to disseminate unless you have a huge, rich publisher that can market you. The biggest con is probably the hate and vitriol that I get for things like my stance on hunting with dogs and now my views on pedigree health issues. The lovers of our most extremely diseased breeds can be unbelievably hurtful and I've had all manner of threats and comments. Most of the time I'm OK and I know I'm doing the right thing but I am human, too, and sometimes I hit some real lows and my friends and family see the impact of that."

She adds, "As for resonating with the public, I think that being down to earth and honest helps. I had to work very hard to get to vet school. My family was not at all well off and it was all done on sweat and tears. I think (and hope) that many people view me as someone they can trust."

Emma is steadily growing her list of book by-lines along with her media experience. Her first published book, The Truth about Cats and Dogs (2008), tackled pedigree health issues. She followed it with Tales from the Tail End (2013) which was more a veterinary memoir.

"TFTTE came about purely by accident," she says. "I had written The Truth about Cats and Dogs before and as an author and a vet, I had been approached to give a pre-publication quote for another book. During the discussions around that the publisher asked me if I would be interested in writing a book for them and suggested a compilation of humorous/emotional stories from my time on TV and as a vet. I loved the idea. I've done so much serious, sad stuff it was actually a really welcome relief to do something light-hearted. All vets have plenty of such stories so it was just a matter of sitting down and trying to remember all the ridiculous, happy, funny, mad, and sad things that had happened. It was the easiest book to write by miles!"

"Children can change the world and I really mean it. They have the power to change how future animals are kept."

Emma has another series out for children, called The Pet Detective Series which she says she dearly loves. This series teaches kids about the five basic welfare needs of pets. "I was a trustee of a charity called the Animal Welfare Foundation for a long time and helped write some of their client leaflets, all using the five welfare needs as a template," she explains. "I have long believed that happiness is just as important for our pets as healthiness and the social and behavioral needs of pets are so often neglected. I’ve also worked with incredible charities in poorer countries and have seen how they use education and children to change long-standing traditions. I decided that teaching children the five basic welfare needs and trying to get them to empathize with animals was the way forward. Children have a natural affinity for animals and the books try to get children to think about how a rabbit might feel lonely in a hutch or a cat might feel threatened by other cats or a dog might feel sad being alone all day. I say at the end that children can change the world and I really mean it. They have the power to change how future animals are kept much more than we vets do."

"After twenty years as a vet and twelve years in practice I am, frankly, outraged."
Most importantly, perhaps, is Emma's work on animal welfare issues. Most recently her work has had a strong focus on pedigree dog health issues, specifically brachycephalic breeds. "I think the arrogance of humans and our treatment of animals is often appalling," she says. "As for pedigree health I am absolutely mortified. The fact that we have got to a point where some people feel it is acceptable to deliberately select for deformity and disease in the name of the breed standard absolutely beggars belief. That may sound unbelievable to many people but it’s true and it’s why, ten years after my first book on the subject, I have decided to re-write it. If anything the health issues have become worse, especially with the exploding popularity of flat-faced dogs and quirky cat breeds. Breeding animals that are likely to suffer because of their body shape is fundamentally wrong. Even at uni when we had exam questions on breed-predispositions I thought it was odd that everyone just seemed to accept it as normal. After twenty years as a vet and twelve years in practice I am, frankly, outraged." 
"The fact that we have got to a point where some people feel it is acceptable to deliberately select for deformity and disease in the name of the breed standard absolutely beggars belief."

Emma's next book, Picking a Pedigree? How to Choose a Healthy Puppy or Kitten, is scheduled for publication in September of this year. As far as how the UK is moving in terms of animal welfare issues, Emma mostly admits it's a mixed bag. "Some good things are happening in the UK with welfare like the banning of wild animals in circuses, compulsory CCTV in slaughterhouses and the like but we also had the utterly ridiculous backward step in Scotland of the reversal of the ban on tail-docking," she says. "The fact that money not welfare and expert opinion drives these political decisions is a constant disappointment. Rumor has it though that we are about to see a huge overhaul of breeding and puppy sales laws which may include the equivalent of the Qualzucht or torture breeding laws. This would mean that you could prosecute individuals for producing litters that are likely to suffer due to extreme conformation. This could be absolutely huge as our laws have never covered future offspring. A test case would be very interesting indeed. 

"I'd love the western world to stop being so obsessed with breeds and start thinking about dogs as a species. Dogs are such wonderful animals. They should be healthy, proportioned, and happy. Health and temperament should be way above looks on the breeding priority list."  

"Dogs are such wonderful animals. They should be healthy, proportioned, and happy."

For someone who has worked diligently to be an animal welfare advocate, it was only natural for me to ask Emma how others can try to make positive impacts as well. 

"The biggest thing I would say is stick to your guns," she says. "Don’t lose your ideals and don’t be afraid to take some flak to stand up for what you really believe. And finally if any of you feel so inclined please join the global voice of We have 53 countries represented now, many organizations and practices, and almost one thousand individuals signed up. It is a standing open letter to show the global level of expert opinion that extreme brachycephaly is wrong on welfare grounds. Have a read of the homepage and sign up if you agree."

On that note, we'll see you soon, dear readers. Happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting. 

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