Growing up, Noel Fitzpatrick found solace – and sanctuary from bullies – in the company of his sheepdog. Now, as the Supervet, he believes that the bond we share with animals can teach us about true compassion and empathy.
Ballyfin, Ireland, 1980
When I was about five years old, Daddy brought home a new sheepdog puppy. Pirate was an amazing, vivacious bundle of black and white fluffy joy who learned how to look after the sheep from our older sheepdog, Dingy. From me, he learned about snuggling and secret conversations. He lived in the cattle shed at the back of our farmhouse. Pirate was my best friend.
On 1 September 1980, at the age of 12, I started my first day at secondary school. For the next five years the daily walk there would become an intensely lonely pathway. The other boys quickly sensed that I was different, vulnerable, reclusive and defenceless. I was a minnow in a pool of sharks who could all read and do maths better than I could, and some of them had even kissed girls.
After my first day I went home to Pirate and sat in the shed hugging him, crying and crying until I was totally spent. He nuzzled my face, licked my tears and looked back at me with his big black eyes. Pirate was the only creature on earth in whom I felt I could confide. I had no human friend to talk to, my older siblings had fled the nest and I couldn’t speak to Mammy and Daddy because, like everything else on the farm, one was just supposed to get on with it. That night, my arm around Pirate, I stared into the blackness of night. Pirate lived a life of relative solitude, chained in his shed. I felt his need to escape and he felt mine.
I didn’t know what bullying actually was. What started as giving me ‘wedgies’ – a cruel and painful activity where underwear is pulled up between the buttocks sharply – gradually progressed to chucking me in the quarry as a lunchtime ritual. All the effluent from the local farmyard was dumped here and so I was regularly covered in s***e. I remember one time going back into class after a particularly bad and mucky bruising when five boys set on me again, one on each arm, one on each leg, giving me the bumps, throwing me up in the air, while the fifth came down hard with his fists on my stomach as I bounced.
The bullies continued. One crawled into the attic above the classroom and dripped ink through a hole in the ceiling on to my head throughout a lesson. I didn’t dare move; if I did he would just inflict more pain on me in some other way. One particularly violent day – they hadn’t satiated themselves with my lunchtime beating – when I went to the bike shed to go home, three of them pounced. They ripped my jacket and grabbed my leather bag, sending the contents flying to the ground and, knowing that I’d drop my bike to grab my beloved books, they threw them around like pass-the-parcel. They snatched my bike and careered it down towards a cattle grid, kicking it back and forth until the wheels buckled and broke. I cried on many nights during those awful years. I closed my eyes to block out the pain, Pirate licking my tear-stained face.
I was fascinated by superheroes and used my vivid imagination to propel me into a world of endless possibility where neither Pirate nor I had chains holding us back. My superhero was called Vetman, who would save me from the bullies and he would save all the animals, too. Like Batman in his search for love and meaning after the loss of his parents, Vetman would be able to heal others. I didn’t want to feel pain any more. I wanted to become him because he could solve any animal problems, any time, anywhere. I imagined that he could talk to animals without using words – far more accomplished than Doctor Dolittle. Vetman fixed up the hedgehog with no legs, the elephant without a trunk and the parrot without a beak.
A few months after the lunchtime quarry-chucking began, I found a hiding place that until now has been my secret. There was an old gardener’s cottage at the back of the classrooms. It hadn’t been used for years and had old onions, some shrivelled beets and herbs drying in the corners. I found peace and a place to fly my secret dreams there. I waited until the distant noise of the boys faded as they were hauled off to sports or into study, and then scuttled down to the bike shed and headed home.
From that first day at secondary school until the end, I had only one focus: study and then study more to get enough points in the Leaving Certificate examination. I would suffer the punches, the sneers and the humiliation, because one day I would get out of there. I would realise my dream and go to veterinary school.
Guildford, Surrey, 2018
Keira is a border terrier and the love of my life. She came into my world on 30 December 2007, when she was three months old. For Keira and me, work is home and home is work. I have a bed in the room next to my office where I can rest, which means I don’t lose time in travelling home after a late surgery followed by an early start. Keira has a nice snuggly bed beside me.
Every time I operate I know that my patient is someone else’s – Keira and I never forget that. She’s been by my side when I’ve studied for specialist exams late at night and her love has kept me going when I’ve felt tired and unable to go on. She has allowed me to be the best version of myself and saves me whenever I feel lonely, sad or inadequate.
Don’t get me wrong; I have loved people in my lifetime, both in friendships and romantically. I have hurt and been hurt. I understand that one can’t compare a romantic relationship to the love of a dog. But I also feel that we have a lot to learn from the feelings we share with an animal: if we could transfer just a bit of that kindness and generosity of spirit into our relationships the world would be a better place.
In my teenage years I was never much of a natural with the ladies: in fact I remained a virgin until I was 21, due mainly to ineptitude along with a typical Irish Catholic childhood, full of sexual guilt and denial. In my third year at Dublin University, the tiny one-room bedsit I shared with the Weetabix-thriving rat was no place to entertain a woman, even if I had been lucky enough to find someone remotely interested in me.
I suppose I could have got married a few times in my life, and why I’m not married seems to fascinate people. It could be said that I gravitate towards animals – like Pirate in my childhood and Keira now – because I find human relationships difficult. The bottom line is that I have been told many times by former partners that I’m selfish, and I can see why they felt that way. Why should a woman put up with always being second best to a dog or a cat in crisis? She has needs that are not being served by me operating at midnight on a Saturday. That’s a tough call and nobody’s to blame, but that doesn’t mean it hurts any less.
I can dress up the altruistic aspect of looking after animals, but there are only so many times that anyone can put up with not feeling top priority. A relationship is supposed to be mutually supportive. As a dear friend once said, ‘If you put a fraction of the effort that you put into saving animals into a woman, you’d have the best relationship on the planet.’
The irony isn’t lost on me that I spend my life looking after animals who are someone else’s loved ones while I have neglected my own. I have battled with depression and feelings of worthlessness all my life. I have made bad mistakes, though I have deep feelings for everyone I have ever held in my arms. But although my love for animals has taken me away from personal relationships, it has saved me, too. Through their eyes I can see that my work really matters, in spite of the challenges and heartache. When I reunite an animal that I have saved with its owner, the joy in the room soothes the pain of love lost because of my work. But it never goes away, and I do wish that I could have balanced the scales of life better.
Unsurprisingly I have met many of the people I have loved through my work. I met Tracey when she brought in her daughter Elsie and her cat, and I ended up loving all three of them, along with her two boys Fred and Charlie. I met the singer-songwriter Cathy Dennis because of her lovely labrador Charlie, who despite my best efforts remained paralysed in his back legs after a spinal injury. Cathy and I remain good friends and I’m sad that I couldn’t give her, or anyone else, what is needed in a healthy relationship.
The irony of all of it is that I still love being in love. A few years ago I was driving home to Ireland with Keira. We stopped by the roadside somewhere in Snowdonia. She licked my face and then was delighted to see sheep in the distance. As I sat and watched her exploring her surroundings I began to cry.
A serious relationship had ended not long before and my heart was still broken. As far as I was able to, I had shared everything that mattered to me with this girl. However, I continued to work ridiculous hours, along with my TV work, and she needed someone who could be there for her more than I was. This seemed ever further away for her, and other doubts and fears set in. Maybe I should have done or said more. I know it’s a cliché but somehow I had hoped that our paths were inextricably heading in the same direction.
My demons came to visit on that barren Welsh mountainside. I was sorry for any pain I had caused. Suddenly I was like a child again and felt desolate and worthless. Keira licked the tears off my face and in that moment she seemed to say that she knew I wasn’t perfect. That I had messed up and was messed up but that somehow it wouldn’t be this bad for ever.
Thank you, Keira, for soothing my heart and teaching me about love. Unconditional love.
This is an edited extract from Listening to the Animals – Becoming the Supervet by Noel Fitzpatrick, which is published by Trapeze, price £20. To order a copy for £16 until 4 November, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.