From measuring tails of rats in the most isolated stretch of land on Planet Earth to tending to a gigantic 191-year-old turtle, Jonathan Hollins in his primary capacity of senior veterinary officer has seen and done it all, or most of them anyway, when it comes to animal welfare, protection, and preservation. Toiling away on St Helena, an isolated island in the South Atlantic, Hollins found himself in the most unexpected of places where he was demanded to perform the most unexpected of medical procedures. However, many of his experiences can only be termed life-affirming as Hollins himself alludes to in compellingly splendid fashion in his extremely readable memoir, Vet At The End of The Earth.
Hollins plied his wares in the British Overseas Territories of the South Atlantic. His eclectic stints encompassed 18 months in the Falkland Islands, more than a decade in St Helena, yes, the very island where Napolean was banished to, and 11 extremely interesting months at Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, situated approximately 2,787 kilometres from Cape Town and 2,437 kilometres from Saint Helena.
Hollins, after completing his veterinary Science at Cambridge University in 1984, found himself practicing at Bainbridge & Butt Veterinary Surgeons in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Following a brief and uneventful stint at Cape Town and Harare, Hollins slogged away for 16 years in the UK combating foot-and-mouth disease. In 2004 a vet on Falkland Islands decided to take a vacation and suggested Hollins as her back up. Hollins was so taken up by the island, the populace, and its animals that he subsequently went on to become St Helena’s first permanent vet.
The job was putting it mildly, unconventional. The Island situated at the periphery of civilization came with its own challenges and scarcities. However, a mutuality of trust and reciprocity, combined with an unvarnished love for animals, made Hollin’s work an absolute pleasure. The vagaries of circumstances could on a trying day, find the vet trying to lure a famished cow away from the deadly precipice of a hill by laying out a trail of peeled potato skins, while a totally different and pleasurable sunny day would place him atop the house of his landlord assisting in laying a new roof.
When a fowl cholera pandemic gripped the island causing ducks to double up, go rigid and drop down dead, Hollin’s found his medical and logical skills stretched to the maximum. An unfortunate combination of inevitable culling and a complete lockdown proved to be the cure for the spontaneous carnage. Hollin’s account is punctuated with carefully placed doses of wicked humour. A Chapter bearing the title of “Monkat”, described strange sightings of a furry animal which to all intents and purposes seems to be an inexplicable cross between a monkey and a cat. Traps, public awareness warnings and surveillance later, the Monkat eludes the tracking endeavours of Hollins and remains a chimera.
Learning to sheep shear, summiting an extinct volcano, and swimming in a lake formed within a crater, when not crisscrossing the islands in an Islander aircraft which narrowly misses getting waylaid by a sudden and mischievous swarm of ascending geese, Hollins experiences are myriad, magical, and mesmerizing. The reader is in lockstep with Hollins as he recounts all his wonderfully diverse involvements with panache, flair, and candour.
The bonding between man and beast is encapsulated in a most compassionate and studied manner by Hollins. This book may well serve to be the inspirational beacon that lures more intrepid students of medicine to choose the field of veterinary science. An added element of inspiration would be to serve in places where even today there is a perceivable lack of infrastructure, but absolutely no dearth of love!
Vet at the end of the Earth – essential, pleasing, and enduring!