Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick on how pets can help us through coronavirus

Our pets are going to save us: TV’s Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick reveals how our cats and dogs will get us through the lockdown

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Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick has seen a lot of people weep for the creatures they love. ‘I’ve had billionaires and megastars and people who are not famous and homeless people all lie on my floor and cry,’ says the country’s most famous animal doctor, star of his own Channel 4 show. ‘Prince or pauper, it’s a universal truth that they are always naked in front of their dog or their cat.’

This dark and brooding 52-year-old Irishman means that we drop all pretence and become our most natural selves with our animals, whoever we are. And Fitzpatrick should know, having had countless famous clients, from DJ Chris Evans to Meghan Markle, and their cats, dogs and rabbits at his state-of-the-art clinic in Surrey. He got an invitation to the Royal Wedding, although as he explains, this single-minded man left early. ‘I had on a pair of tight, really fancy new shoes and they were hurting my feet.’

The orthopaedic neuro veterinary surgeon is as famous for his pioneering operations as he is for being on the telly, having made the Guinness Book Of Records for giving a cat called Oscar the world’s first bionic feline feet, but it’s the heart that concerns him the most in these difficult times.

‘I am reflecting on how important it is for humans and the animals we care about to look after each other right now. Coronavirus has heightened our awareness of families. My cat and my dog are integral family members to me and I don’t think anybody has a right to judge from outside about that. It is a deeply personal thing,’ says Fitzpatrick, who is single but lives with a cat called Ricochet and a border terrier called Kiera.

TV’s Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick says that we drop all pretence and become our most natural selves with our animals, whoever we are

‘I feel very strongly that the bond I see between a human and a companion animal makes humans very kind and shows the best of humanity. The crisis of the animal coming into my clinic allows a window to the soul in the human that you wouldn’t normally see.’

Fitzpatrick explores this in a new podcast series called Animal People, during revealing conversations with mates and former clients including the Queen legend Brian May, Texas singer Sharleen Spiteri and the magician Dynamo. These are far more than fluffy chats: May talks movingly about a difficult relationship with his dad, while Fitzpatrick in turn reveals how the music of Queen helped him survive the loneliness of life as a bullied teenager on a farm in Ireland, with only a collie called Pirate as a friend. ‘My commitment to people is that if they let me in, I will never tell them a lie. Ever. I will never sell out.’

As we walk together by the river near his home in Guildford, it becomes clear that philosophy runs much deeper for an intense man who considers himself to be on a mission: to help humans understand our deep connection with the animals around us and to get veterinary and medical science to work together for the greater good. ‘I do the media stuff because I would like to build a platform to change the way medicine is done and show that we are not alone on the planet. I don’t give a flying f*** about fame – except that it helps get the message across.’

Noel  Fitzpatrick at the Royal Wedding last year. ‘I believe we all come from God’s pure consciousness and I try to relate to people at their most real and I guess that’s the answer to why I get asked to things’

Fitzpatrick runs a staff of 250 and a team of 30 surgeons at his clinic and will take in any animal that needs it, regardless of who the owner is. Costs range from £210 for an initial consultation to £8,000 for a canine hip replacement. But there’s no doubt his work brings him close to some very prominent people, including royalty: Meghan Markle brought her beagle Guy to him after it broke two legs shortly after her engagement to Prince Harry was announced. A relationship clearly developed, but isn’t that a bit odd? How does a vet get invited to a wedding?

‘I put an endoprosthesis into a dog’s leg for cancer recently and I got invited to that person’s wedding, too. He was a fireman. The dog was carrying the ring up the aisle,’ says Fitzpatrick. ‘I believe in the beauty of the human soul. I believe we all come from God’s pure consciousness and I try to relate to people at their most real and I guess that’s the answer to why I get asked to things.’

He works long days and nights in the surgery, often sleeps there or writes academic papers into the early hours of the morning, so most invitations get turned down. And even when he went to Windsor Castle for the wedding of the century, he didn’t stay to the end. ‘It was an amazing honour to be there and quite surreal because I was sitting just behind Elton John. After the service, there was a big get-together. Prince Charles gave a few words and Elton played a bit on piano and it was all very nice. There were canapés. It was a magnificent occasion and also incredibly humbling. I was thinking: ‘What is a farmer’s son doing here? What am I doing here?’ It was a real case of imposter syndrome. I felt truly honoured, but anyway, I decided to leave.’

What was wrong?

‘I thought, I don’t actually know anybody. I’m really lucky to have seen this magical thing and I am very happy for Harry and Meghan, because they are wonderful people, but my shoes are killing me. I also thought this is all a bit overwhelming. So I asked a lady if she could show me the door out of the castle.’

They weren’t expecting guests to leave early and it turned into a bit of a farce. After walking out of the castle gate and through the tight ring of security, Fitzpatrick realised he was lost. ‘Suddenly I’m on the wrong side of the castle, in a penguin suit. I don’t have a mobile with me, because we weren’t allowed to carry them. I don’t know where I am. The American tourists can’t help. The security guards aren’t allowed to show me a map. I wander around for two hours with my jacket over my arm and in my socks, because I’ve taken my shoes off. I know I’m staying in a house by a church but it turns out there are seven churches in Windsor! Finally I ask in a shop that mends keys and they recognise my description of the place. So I get there at last and with all of the celebrations going on outside, Noel Fitzpatrick is sitting with his sore feet in salted water in a bidet. So that was my Royal Wedding: my feet in a bidet.’

He laughs, before wincing and putting a hand up to his neck. An accident at home a month ago has put him in a neck brace and nearly cost his life. ‘I fell down a flight of stairs and crumpled head-first into a wall, my body crushing my neck.’

Suddenly the round-the-clock lifestyle of the Supervet had been brought to a shuddering halt. ‘People say you should stop and smell the roses. I never really understood that phrase until now, but if you’re sitting there in hospital with two blocks on either side of your head to keep it in place and you physically can’t move, and the man in the bed next to you is dying, and the lady in the bed on the other side of the room is screaming in pain, you are forced to stop and smell the roses.’

Having to be absolutely still has been a challenge for this ceaseless worker. ‘I am a farmer’s son, I should be out getting in the sheep and bringing in the hay.’

Fitzpatrick grew up on a farm in Laois, Ireland. Obsessed with comic superheroes, he invented a character called VetMan, who was going to save animals, partly by giving the wounded ones bionic legs. And Fitzpatrick made that dream come true as an adult by training as a vet in Dublin and America then moving to England to create a life modelled on the film hero Iron Man.

‘I knew I needed to do three things simultaneously. I needed to build VetMan’s bunker because otherwise he couldn’t save all the animals in the world.’ That’s his clinic in Surrey. ‘I needed to get academically qualified enough to power the machine,’ says Fitzpatrick, who admits in his podcast that he got into television out of frustration after writing 100 academic papers and realising nobody was listening. ‘I needed to build a television antenna that could transfer messages into the world.’

‘Chris Evans came in with his dog Enzo. He is a dear friend and a beautiful human being. We would sit and talk in the garden outside the practice. He went to the controller of BBC1 and said: “What about this guy?”’

Fitzpatrick kicked off his media career as an actor, appearing in episodes of Heartbeat, Casualty and The Bill, but it was a famous client who gave him his breakthrough.

‘Chris Evans came in with his dog Enzo. He is a dear friend and a beautiful human being. We would sit and talk in the garden outside the practice. He went to the controller of BBC1 and said: “What about this guy?”’

The Bionic Vet series in 2010 starred Oscar the cat, who was ultimately given feline versions of the blades the runner Oscar Pistorius used. Viewers were touched by stories about animals like Ice the puppy who had been trampled by a horse, Lottie the cat with a shattered pelvis and Sandy the labrador who had an implant grafted onto her leg so she could have a replacement for her deformed paw. The Supervet series began on Channel 4 in 2014 and over 100 episodes made Fitzpatrick very famous. ‘I was at a concert and somebody was taking a picture on their phone. I said: “Mate, the band are that way.” The guy said: “No, I was taking a picture of you.” I am like: “What? Bizarre.” Then all of a sudden, the penny dropped.’

He is said to be worth £16 million but laughs at the suggestion. ‘I am still walking by the same river. I am still in the same house I’ve been in for 25 years. I am still building the practice. Look how much I owe the bank. I think I owe them several million and you have to pay the overheads and the wages every month.’

Fitzpatrick was dubbed Britain’s Sexiest Vet. ‘It’s mad. I started getting scented mail. My secretary said: “You’re not going to believe this, Boss!”’

He lives alone in a surprisingly modest flat with his pets. Now that he’s forced to stop working all hours through injury, does he sometimes feel lonely?

‘I have thought about that quite recently. I haven’t been lonely with my neck injury, because I am used to it. I have a cat and a dog and the fact is, every single day of my life, I am surrounded with unconditional love. How can it be lonely when you are connected 100 per cent of the time?’

The accident has forced him to leave the surgery for a while, but he has been taking meditation classes and reading up on quantum physics and cognitive neuroscience. ‘Talking to people on the podcasts through the prism of their love for an animal gives us a unique chink of light into that pure consciousness which connects us,’ he says. ‘Right now, a black labrador is passing by as happy as Larry,’ he says as the dog approaches us on the riverbank. They exchange glances and it feels a bit like being with Dr Dolittle. ‘If you are lying in hospital with your neck broken, all you’ve got is something that transcends your brain.’ But he still has a strong sense of mission. ‘I want to change the world.’

One Medicine is what he calls the idea that doctors, researchers and vets should collaborate. ‘It is silly that we just think about humanity in isolation.’ For example, his work with bionic limbs for cats and dogs could help humans right now if doctors were prepared to listen. ‘Instead of spending a million trying to find out how to do something we already know, why not just join together?’ The same goes for cancer, stem cell research, bone and brain disease and infection control, which has become urgent with Coronavirus. ‘I gave a lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine last October, part of which was on infection. I said we ignore at our peril the role of animal-human disease similarities and transmission.’ This was a reference to Ebola in humans likely originating in bats. ‘Fast-forward a few months and current evidence suggests that the Covid-19 crisis may have a wild animal source in China. I really hope that both society and scientific communities will listen to the message of One Medicine. We’re all on the planet together.’

He says the current thinking from veterinary authorities is that there is no evidence dogs get sick from coronavirus or spread the disease, although we don’t yet know about companion animals in general and it’s best to avoid direct contact with pets from homes where people have the virus. But he stresses that cats and dogs and humans can provide vital companionship and support for each other. ‘Coronavirus should make us realise that our families and animal or human love is all we have. It makes us think about what is important. When you begin to touch the essence of what makes us human, I think that makes us better. I think we will come out of this better than when we went in.’ 

The podcast ‘Animal People’, sponsored by Petplan, is released weekly on iTunes, Spotify and all main podcast platforms. Guests for series one include Brian May and Dynamo


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