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The unnatural order of things

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FAR be it from me to question the dogma that practice is the backbone of the veterinary profession. However, as I look back at practice from the outside, I do sometimes wonder whether the profession is suffering from ankylosing spondylitis. When I was a student there was a clear order of prestige in the type of work practitioners undertook. Horse work was the tops; when I was a student one of our lecturers insisted that the world judged vets by their handling of horse cases. Some of us wondered whether to change careers forthwith.

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As a student I had seen practice at a place where the ‘Grand Old Man’ had enormous experience with horses and wanted his son to go the same way. It was a five-man practice at the time and the son had in fact specialised in pigs. The horse cases all went to the Grand Old Man but, even so, they really only occupied him for three or four hours a day. Horse work may have been prestigious but there was not much of it.

Fortunately, when I went as an assistant in agricultural practice (a poor second in order of prestige) I hardly ever saw a horse. But I was rapidly initiated into the delights of tuberculin testing and I firmly believe the Divisional Veterinary Officer who initiated me impressed upon me its importance because he did not want to have to do the tedious job himself. My principals did their share but I was bored out of my mind, and to this day cannot understand why practitioners are so anxious to hold on to this work. A few farmers, particularly younger ones who had been trained at agricultural institutes, wanted to do some of the routine veterinary jobs (worming pigs and giving calcium to milk fever cases) for themselves, but this was resented by practitioners. It never seemed to occur to them that they could run smaller practices and charge more for doing only the interesting jobs.

Small animal work, further down the prestige order, was often relegated to women in those days. On very little evidence, practitioners asserted that their farmer clients would not want to have women on their farms.

Yet, lowest of all was poultry work. The status of poultry was anomalous because the industry was in the hands of a few large companies who demanded a high standard of competence. The few vets who chose to ignore the ignominy and develop this specialism prospered to the envy of other practitioners.

Finally, zoo work and laboratory animal work were scarcely heard of. Fish farms did not exist.

After a year of tuberculin testing, disbudding and castrating calves, and vaccinating pigs, I looked for something else. I went into the pharmaceutical industry. As this was not practice, it was, in practitioners' eyes, beneath contempt. This was ironic because whenever a practitioner telephoned for advice about one of the company's products he asked to be put through to a vet. Furthermore, because I knew the expert on each product, I could speak with complete authority. Even the great names in the practising arm of the profession seemed grateful at times!

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