A tale of two vets and two books

2013-12-06 00:00

IT is interesting that vets are not only good at treating animals but they are also good at telling stories. The writing bug bites them at some stage. Two local vets, Mike Hardwich and Tod Collins, have put pen to paper and locally published books quite worthy of praise in the tradition of James Herriot. Herriot (James Wight) was an English novelist who wrote a series of books set in the Yorkshire Dales about his veterinary experiences.

Although neither of them has written in the Herriot style, each of them has captured the quintessential essence of the special relationship between people and animals. I spoke to both authors about their writing experiences:

Mike Hardwich has written a few books on his experiences as a vet and this Hillcrest veterinarian has always had the urge to put his thoughts onto paper.

His latest book, The Rhino and the Rat, is an enjoyable read. Chatting on the beautiful veranda of his farm in the lush Umbumbulu area, he said, “Animals will always be part of my life. I don’t think I’ve ever had a real day off. Writing about my experiences is a way of capturing the good and interesting parts of my career.”

Since vets have animal patients who cannot talk, they certainly are presented with a lot of challenges and they have to come up with some quick solutions to tricky problems.

Hardwich started writing his stories 20 years ago, and some stories were published by an English publisher. But Hardwich, who is based in South Africa, wanted to sell his books locally, where a lot of his stories have occurred.

Although Hardwich and his wife Judy spent some time on the Isle of Man, where he practised as a vet, his heart has always belonged to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Hardwich says that his experiences on the Isle of Man taught him that the farmers there are very tough and also very capable, as they don’t have labourers to do the work.

Hardwich says he has learnt that vets have to deal with people and their animals, and often the welfare of the animal boils down to the financial position of the owner.

“We are there to save animals, but we also have to save the owner from bankruptcy and sometimes it’s a tough call because you know there is treatment that can save an animal but the owner cannot afford it.”

Hardwich’s stories range from amazing stories about animals healing despite the odds, to challenging tales where he was stretched to the limits in finding solutions for sick animals.

He has treated sick marmoset monkeys, crocodiles and elephants and he has taken great pride in raising his own herd of Afrikaner cattle which took a lot of time and effort.

His home is full of animals — a variety of dogs, birds and horses, and wild birds fly in to feed on the seed in the bird feeder.

Hardwich says that vets are called upon in the most extraordinary circumstances because people think that vets have more empathy than doctors.

“People will phone us at 11 pm, because their pet looks a bit sick, but they wouldn’t dare ring the GP.”

It’s a great book for animal lovers and readers with a curiosity for the wild side of life. Hardwich has another book or two up his sleeve. His books are available in Durban and Midlands bookstores.

Tod Collins is a renowned raconteur in his hometown of Underberg and it was no surprise when his greatly acclaimed first book ’Til the Cows come Home was followed this year by Bull by the Horns.

His stories often have a twist in the tale and this book is no different.

Todd is an avid hiker and nature lover. He goes to nature to escape and find solace, and his stories often reveal this contemplative side of him.

Todd explained to me that he found people and their animals intriguing, and that he found that being a vet was often a challenging job as it could be emotionally taxing.

“We are, of course, in the business of looking after animals, but we are in the business of dealing with the owners of animals and sometimes difficult decisions have to be made.”

Underberg farmers may recognise themselves in his stories but for others like me who only know the district second-hand, the stories have a universal appeal.

Collins veers off the veterinary track occasionally and he reveals a few stories about his early years when he travelled abroad with a Greek donkey. He was nicknamed Doctor Bongoli and he had some interesting adventures in a Monte Carlo casino.

Collins has a mischievous nature and his sense of humour shines through at times and at other times his empathy for the troubles of others also shows.

He said, “I did have to change the names in some stories as I could be in trouble. One has to be sensitive to certain situations and respect the privacy of people. Of course, it is the moral of the story that you want to convey.”

One of his stories is about a local farmer’s suicide and he believes the story is about more than the actual suicide, but it reveals the man’s deep intellect and spiritual search for meaning.

I just about rolled on the floor laughing at Collins’s story of his encounter with some traffic officers on his way to a road race in the Eastern Cape.

Using immense charm and a sprinkling of Zulu, he managed to weasel his way out of a fine by dispensing veterinary advice to the three traffic officers who ended up giving a demonstration of the local dance moves.

It is a scene worthy of a Schuster movie. The books are available in local book stores.

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