Cow-cockies and cock-ups, Michael Lyon

Shaggy Dogs & Other Stories: Tales of a Kiwi Vet
David Marshall
Shoal Bay Press, $24.95
ISBN 0 908704 69 0

When I first graduated as a veterinary surgeon in the late 1970s, I started work with an established veterinary practice in Christchurch. One of the owners was a reasonably young man who had an amazing array of stories and anecdotes on his adventures as a veterinarian. The ability of some individuals to retain in their mind great detail on incidents that occurred years ago has always impressed me. This vet could tell stories as if they happened yesterday, and with a humorous slant even on what one could describe as tragedy.

After another 20 years or so of veterinary practice, this vet, David Marshall, has collected all his stories of those early years, added a few more and presented them to the public in Shaggy Dogs 8 Other Stories: Tales of a Kiwi Vet. From the first chapter entitled “First Day as a Vet”, Marshall sets the tone for the whole book. Written with a self-deprecating humour, he describes the death of his very first patient (a cow with cancer) and the reaction of the dour farmer- “are you a proper vet or student?” – giving us an insight into the uncertainties of life for a young vet let loose into a rural community such as that on the West Coast.

The description of his West Coast days in his first veterinary job is the most amusing of the book. The combination of remote landscapes, large distances between farms and the classical “Coast character” invites comparisons with James Herriot’s Yorkshire Dales in the popular All Creatures Great and Small series. Having been to Yorkshire and practised veterinary medicine there, I can attest to a similarity in these locations. Coast life as described by David Marshall tends to be harsher than Herriot’s beloved Yorkshire. The legendary pub life of the West Coast, together with exploits with the local female population, come to the fore in this chapter. Acceptance of the young vet by the hardened farmers of the day arrives only after the author aims a lucky shot at a cattle beast requiring euthanasia.

This is a very easy book to read. The writing style is blunter and distinctly “Kiwi” compared with Marshall’s more famous Yorkshire counterpart; the material is laid out in chronological chapters. Any chapter could be read in any sequence, arranged as they are in a continuous series of anecdotes. The problem with this is what can appear to be a disjointed flow as you leap from one to another in a rapid-fire assortment of stories. One minute you may arrive at a serious side to veterinary life and the next you are laughing at the implied “cock-up” factor underneath.

The chapter on moving to Christchurch and owning his first practice describes the start of Marshall’s desire to improve the standard of veterinary care. In the days before veterinary specialists, David Marshall was known to dabble in a complex area, heart conditions or cardiology. After diagnosing the need for a pacemaker for a 17-year-old dog’s slowing heart, he organises human surgeons to implant it in the dog. Then he matter-of-factly mentions that the dog became so active that it got run over three months later chasing cats! The description that follows of trying to find the pacemaker in the crematorium brings the reader back to the typical Marshall serious/hilarious anecdotal mix.

David Marshall was the vet responsible for the husky dogs at Scott Base in the Antarctic. The chapter he devotes to this describes the remoteness of the base and the limitations of being a vet there. His satisfaction in solving a long-standing arthritic condition in the huskies is evident, as it is in his interaction with the longer-term staff. After a staff member asks Marshall to check his oven sperm sample, like that of the dogs, under a microscope, our vet warns against straying from veterinary medicine! The account of having to retire all the huskies from the base and the attachment the author has to them is touching. The reader can’t fail to sympathise with Marshall as he plans to ensure that they find new homes in America, when the bureaucratic desire is for them all to be put down.

The last few chapters deal with more of David Marshall’s personal life. He describes the arrival of his children and the pets they accumulate. The description of his unruly Dalmatian dog reminds one of all those stories of the mechanic’s car that won’t start. To read of the vet’s dog that fights with the neighbour’s dog and tears up rubbish bags will bring a smile to all chastened dog-owners. The death of the Marshall’s three-year-old daughter and the helplessness they feel is depicted very movingly – all the more so when he describes how giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a pet reminds him of having done so to his daughter. He moves on from this to the eventual healing that came from moving house.

This book is obviously not written by a journalist, but by a man who has got a great number of amusing stories of varying shades of credibility in his head. I am sure there are many more that will eventually surface but I will conclude this review with a classic example. The author comes back to his surgery one afternoon to be greeted by worried staff. The concern is the Bikie gang congregating in the clinic around their dog, which has been hit by a car. The young female vet has tried to explain to the gang about the severe fracture of the spine, the haemorrhage of the spinal cord and the inevitable respiratory paralysis that will lead to the demise of the dog. Marshall says he will explain it to them. The first gang member says, “Hey, Doc. What’s wrong with our dog?” Marshall replies, “Your dog’s fucked”. “Oh,” the gang member says. “Why didn’t she tell us that in the first place?”

Michael Lyon is a Wellington veterinarian who writes a column on veterinary matters for the Evening Post.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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