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2010-05-26 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Alf Wight. Chances are, you never heard of him. Yet, he enchanted millions with his tales of a country vet, probably inspired more people than anyone else to enter the field of veterinary medicine, and was (and still is) the biggest boost to tourism of the Yorkshire Dales. If you are an animal lover, you know him better by his familiar pen name- James Herriot (1916-1995), the veterinarian and author behind All Creatures Great and Small and a host of other heartwarming books.

Last week I had the privilege of listening to James Wight, Herriot’s son, a retired veterinarian, talk about his life and the practice he shared for 25 years with his famous dad. Wight came to the U.S. to address the graduating veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania, and later was a guest at the NYC Veterinary Specialists Hospital on West 55th Street so the city veterinary community and a few fortunate fans would get the opportunity to meet him.

James Herriot with his Border Terrier, “Brodie.” James Herriot with his Border Terrier, “Brodie.” In 1999, James Wight published The Real James Herriot, A Memoir of My Father. This biography gives an inside glimpse at a skilled surgeon who never let being a best-selling author interfere with his devotion to animals and people. Each Herriot chapter offers humor, compassion and insights into human nature. Wight reminisced that after his father had become a celebrity, the tour buses would arrive to demand visits while the duo was busy spaying a cat. Herriot had to set aside specific weekdays for book signings, and once joked that the waiting room had “one hamster, two Yorkshire Terriers and 45 Americans.”

Proceeds from the NYC event benefited the James Herriot Museum (www.worldofjamesherriot.org) in the UK which consists of the original Skedale househis home and surgery office as it looked in the 1940s; archival medicines and items that chronicle veterinary history; and a recreation of the set where the BBC television series- All Creatures Great and Small was filmed. The Museum holds a writing competition and a bi-annual Herriot convention.

Herriot served as a vet full time from 1940-80.The works of Herriot including sequels All Things Bright and Beautiful; All Things Wise and Wonderful capture a nostalgic era when veterinary medicine was undergoing a metamorphosis. During those four decades, antibiotics were refined whereas practices shifted from large animals to small animals, as the one-person farms gave way to conglomerates.

Herriot’s books have sold 85-90 million copies worldwide and were later turned into two feature films plus a BBC television program, but Wight explained that fame never changed his humble father who considered himself 99% vet and 1% author- (although, in later years, 1% vet and 99% author comprised his income). He described his dad as a well-read man who enjoyed writing as a hobby. In fact, Herriot typed his manuscripts alongside his family while watching the “telly” and endured ten years of editor rejections before he was successfully published.

It wasn’t until 1972 when the St. Martin’s Press editor combined Herriot’s first two books under the new title All Creatures Great and Small that Herriot became an overnight literary sensation. At that time, if he had published under his real name, his profession would have construed this as brash advertising so Alf Wight chose “James Herriot” (after a talented soccer player) as his nom de plume. All characters (including partner Siegfried and his brother Tristan) and places were rechristened to protect the innocent or guilty, and to preserve their anonymity and that of his quaint village. Herriot sets his practice in a place called Darrowby but actually his clinic was in Thirsk.

Despite some reviewers labeling Herriot’s works as fiction, Wight insists that each animal anecdote did occur. Sometimes his father would “borrow” the cases that had happened to his son including one of my favorites- the story of Blossom, the old cow that broke away from the slaughterman and raced back home as the farmer who loved her was trying to reclaim her. Other times Herriot would morph locals so they wouldn’t recognize themselves, but they often did, just the same.

Wight chuckled about how the farmers and pet owning clients in Yorkshire were so delinquent in paying, how they wouldn’t praise your skill because you may then charge more, and how it was often years before they settled outstanding bills. The vet was always the last to get his money. Back then many emergencies, even the farm animal calls, would come in the middle of the night. Waiting until the last minute, the farmer had tried every home remedy (to save money), so the poor animal was often moribund by the time the vet got there. Still, they expected the good doctor to work a miracle, and many times, he did.

Theyounger Wight talked about Mrs. Bush who owned a pub and a piggery. His father was called out to deliver a dozen piglets while Mrs. Bush held a broom in the sow’s mouth. After Herriot’s sweaty ordeal, she offered him a bucket to clean up and a mug of ale in her pub, but was quick to hold out her hand and say: “That’ll be five bob.” In a subsequent book the parsimonious pub owner was turned into a composite character of several farmers. However, the veil was thin, since the real Mrs. Bush remarked to Herriot: “I enjoyed your book. Aye, Mr. Wight, that fellow with his pigs could’ve been me.”

For Adoption at Town of Oyster Bay Shelter (677-5784) Miller Pl. Syosset: “Atticus” #185 is an active male Shepherd mix found as a stray in Massapequa while “Simba”#865 is a small young Pit mix who has been waiting a long time for her forever home. She had obedience lessons during the time the Mixed Breeds in Need volunteer trainers were at the shelter. Dog: “Tut” white Shepherd/Lab

Cats: “Clyde” tuxedo male; “Sushi”- orange & white male in the lobby.

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