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A practitioner ponders

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I have long believed that it is what we do for nothing that defines us professionally, more so than the ever increasing level of clinical, diagnostic and surgical excellence that colleagues admirably achieve. How do we decide when it is appropriate to put our skills to use in situations that may be financially disadvantageous?

Clearly, the legal responsibility for the welfare of animals lies with their keepers. It seems, however, that sometimes this responsibility is fulfilled simply by asking for help; then we find ourselves in a dilemma. Do we do what is asked with little hope of payment, or harden our hearts and put the responsibility back where it really lies? The recurrent necessity to justify not doing what we are trained for and innately want to do is one of the greatest strains in my working life.

I recently repaired a ruptured diaphragm in a kitten after it was thrown from a moving car – there was no owner, no-one asked us to do it. For the nurse and myself, it was one of the greatest thrills to see it bright and eating 24 hours later. This incident caused me to think about the fact that there is real joy in simply doing a good thing, but, if you make gestures of this sort for someone who asks for it, you often open the door to ever greater exploitation.

Is it true, then, that to feel the benefit of giving the gift must not be sought? We are exhorted at management seminars to become more businesslike, and it is easy to be seduced by the notion that in increased profitability comes increased happiness. At the same time, we are often reminded to be imaginative in how we reward our staff. We are told that more money is not always the answer. In reality, more money often just isn't available.

At a time when emotional wellbeing in the profession is worryingly low, maybe we should look a little harder for opportunities to demonstrate our humanity. Perhaps a little more pro bono work, rather than less, might paradoxically offset the relatively poor remuneration for vets and support staff. Our success in the world is increasingly measured by our ability to accumulate possessions that can be compared with those of our peers, but studies repeatedly show that happiness does not increase in proportion to the accumulation of wealth.

We cannot do everything for everyone, regardless of ability to pay, but a surprising degree of satisfaction can be had from a gesture of unsolicited kindness. If you can involve your staff as well, the benefit is amplified. The difficulty is avoiding becoming a soft touch, by which you risk losing the respect of clients and staff alike.

As in all things, I suppose we must find the right balance. I have an elderly friend who has an enviable degree of contentment and he often tells anyone who will listen that, ‘It’s not the man with the most things but the one with the least wants that is happiest.'

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