'I never got to vet school'
In part two of our summer series – in which Irish Timeswriters consider their alternative careers – Eileen Battersbyreveals her unfilfilled wish to be a professional animal carer
REGRETS? I’VE had a lot, a spectacular amount. My lack of judgment is epic, while my decision-making skills make Hamlet appear driven. But the biggest regret in a life of mistakes remains the earliest – not doing veterinary at university and settling, initially, for law.
The reasoning was logical, if flawed. Mom reckoned I had the makings of a great doctor as I didn’t much like people, but that I would be an even better lawyer because of a fascination with the criminal mind – and, as a child I had, apparently, expressed an interest in justice. I don’t remember this, although I do recall having planned the perfect bank robbery only to realise that the great bank robber needs an elite team and, when I was 12, I just didn’t have sufficient underworld contacts.
Anyhow, fast forward to me, aged 17, good with animals, not so hot with humans, known for my skill in handling rats and snakes, and intent on being a vet. Mom still maintained I was destined for tragedy; I would become too involved with my patients. I pointed out that not every case would be hopeless; many owners would arrive with pets requiring vaccinations, advice on skin allergies, diet, birth control, routine procedures, minor wounds, injuries and persistent scratching. Some animals are accident prone. There are horses who will manage to bruise their hock on the same fence very time they pass it.
But Mom knew better. Cats and dogs insist on running across the road with horrific consequences. No, I would spend my working days weeping. This lack of professional detachment would prove detrimental.
“Do law,” she advised. “You’ve a good memory. You’re cool under pressure.” Cool under pressure? Me? I liked the sound of that, probably because I was, and remain, so fantastically uncool in every other way.
At first law, the compromise choice, did have one attraction. I had always wanted a father like Atticus Finch; in fact, I had wanted him to be my father. When I finally watched the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, and saw Atticus come to life in the wondrous form of Gregory Peck, I reckoned here was proof that even a lawyer could be noble.
I, too, would be noble, defend the weak and maligned and verbally destroy the bad; in short, I would become the Robin Hood of the legal system and save the world from itself.
By day two of law, I realised the communal smugness of the profession would eventually kill me. Imagination won out. Why attend law lectures if you could sit in the library reading Thomas Mann?
So I defected to English, immensely satisfying, yet all the while a private guilt niggled. Behind the pleasures of Anglo Saxon verse and Elizabethan drama, there lurked the misunderstood dogs that needed me, not forgetting all those cats who suffer an adverse reaction to the saliva of the flea bite and the tired old brood mares hoping a fearless vet would at last inform their owners that it wasn’t humane to put them into foal yet again.
You watch people with their pets, you see the pride and the love; you also see the grief. A dog can get closer than any human. These are privileged insights into life itself. I’ve comforted dying animals, including a fox hit by a car. Hauled horses from ditches, I’ve also foaled mares, acted as midwife for dogs and cats, tended the one-legged crow that lived in my kitchen for a week.
Why are animals so fascinating? Because they don’t speak; they trust. They live for the moment. They hope. They endure. Their way of dealing with pain is by code. You have to observe closely. The body language can be obvious, but it is more often subtle. No one is more annoying than the amateur expert, the non-professional know-it-all. But you learn from every experience.
The advances in human medicine in my lifetime have been incredible; even more amazing are the comparable developments in veterinary science and animal nutrition. People are living longer, so are domesticated animals. Medication sustains not only life but the all-important qualityof life. Why shouldn’t former race horses and show jumpers enjoy a contented retirement after competition? Arthritis, probably the most common complaint of the older horse, may not be curable but now it can be eased and controlled.
Even while doing post-graduate studies in English, I was quietly pursuing my other life. I was devoted to small animals but I knew that my major interest was horses. Powerful, dramatic and vulnerable, the horse is an enigma.
Horses survived for thousands of years without humans, but since we have become involved, the horse’s natural toughness has been compromised.
I was aware of all of this, and had also realised that the descendents of the horses that had once gone to war or had hauled carriages and heavy loads, had evolved into athletes, experiencing the same wear and tear as their present-day human equivalents and also requiring physio or hydrotherapy and regular massage.
The 18th-century English artist George Stubbs, was intent on studying equine anatomy and spent 18 months dissecting horses he had slaughtered. He wanted to understand how the body of a horse works, how its conformation determines movement. While I was reading material such as this I was investigating bloodlines as well as eating my way through mountains of history, novels and poetry. By the time I had finished post grad, I had begun reviewing.
Suddenly I was writing sports journalism. It was fun but I still had time to go back and become a vet. Then life took over. Although I remained involved in rescuing and handling injured, traumatised and often depressed animals, I never did get to vet school.
Arts journalism is a luxury. It is a privilege to be paid to read books, to write about Rembrandt and Bach, to be asked for your opinion. Interviewing is an ordeal because of the responsibility it demands. I never set out to be a journalist. It happened through my interest in sport, classical music, heritage and books.
I would have preferred to be visiting racing stables and show-jumping yards, to be treating a beloved family pony, or the courageous hunter, the Grand Prix horse with a sore shoulder. I’d like to have been there for a bewildered first-time mother about to foal, or the old horse that had had enough and deserved a dignified leave-taking.
All I’d have needed was my ancient car and a good sound system when making my rounds. Every animal, every patient is different, so are the owners.
Cats have nine lives, or so it is said. I would have been happy with two; the one I’ve had, and my other life, the one I wanted.