Noel Fitzpatrick, Supervet: Interview

Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick takes his Welcome to my World tour on the road
Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick takes his Welcome to my World tour on the road
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Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick tells @JanetChristie2 medicine needn’t differentiate between pets and people, as he brings his show to Scotland

Spiderman, Superman and Supervet. With his superpower gift of bionics, this pioneer of prosthetics for pooches and pusses, neuro-orthopaedic veterinary surgeon Noel Fitzpatrick has us sitting up and begging for more with his hit TV programme, The Supervet. Now he’s delivering his message live with his touring show, Welcome to My World, in Scotland next month.

Noel Fitzpatrick grew up on a farm: 'I just wanted to heal all the animals'

Noel Fitzpatrick grew up on a farm: 'I just wanted to heal all the animals'

With his mop of curly black hair, dark eyes and badgery toned stubble, he’s TV friendly, personable, upbeat and enthusiastic, a little bit country vet, a little bit rock and roll. This morning in Edinburgh in the flesh the effect of his physicality is ramped up, especially when he leaps out of his seat and lunges, keeping up the conversation all the while.

“‘Scuse me, I’m just going to do some stretches,” he says. “Early morning flight, and I was still in theatre with a dog till midnight.”

Looks limber enough to me. When he sits back down in the chair opposite, I get the full force of his attention and it’s like the classic ad for Maxwell cassettes with the man in the chair, hair, scarf, blasted back by the force from the speakers. Not that he shouts, but when he talks, it’s an intense, engaging Irish brogue with explosions of superhero onomatopoeia – “booms!” and “wows!” bursting out in zig-zag speech bubbles.

Professor Fitzpatrick appears to have the world at his feet, rolling over to have its tummy tickled. His vet centre is one of the country’s largest and he’s in demand for his expertise, bionics, keyhole surgery, cancer treatment, saving pets in the last chance saloon, as well as speaking at international conferences on animal and human medicine. He’s on series 13 of his hit Channel 4 The Supervet show, holds a Guinness World Record for the world’s first double ‘bionic’ leg implant, university honorary doctorates and can count the Queen among his fans.

Noel Fitzpatrick, The Supervet, comes to Scotland in November

Noel Fitzpatrick, The Supervet, comes to Scotland in November

“I do stuff that nobody else has the technology to do, or can’t do, or doesn’t want to do,” he says.

Yet Supervet didn’t go into this to be famous, “I wouldn’t say I’m shy but I prefer one to one,” he says. “I don’t particularly like to be recognised, but usually people show me pictures of their pets and that’s lovely. And I like to think I represent something good in a world that badly needs integrity.”

As Fitzpatrick sees it, we’ve lost touch with what really matters.

“And what matters is the same for everyone – I’ve met rich and poor, rock stars and the Queen – it’s love, health and something to look forward to. The Supervet works because it’s entertaining, it’s educational and it’s full of love. It taps into a fundamental need of all human beings and that is to be loved. On the show we travel through a crisis, it’s life and death and I know I’m supposed to be a guardian angel for hope. So last night, I put a dog to sleep, and it’s heartbreaking… as raw as the first time… So the only thing you can do is bring happiness as well. People need to know there’s sadness because we’re all passing through, but the only way is to pick yourself up, look on the bright side and I’ve got something to look forward to. And The Supervet gives me a platform that allows me to hopefully make positive change.

“Have you read any of my scientific papers?” he says, and before I can say no, “‘Course you haven’t. But you’ve seen The Supervet.”

Which brings us to Supervet’s mission: to spread the concept of One Medicine or cross-pollination between veterinary and human medicine. That’s why he founded his charity The Humanimal Trust to fund collaboration between vets, human doctors, bio engineers and scientists for the benefit of all living creatures, and why he’s in town today for an event promoting it. It’s why he does everything from The One Show to Loose Women, to hammer home the message that if animals can be helped, humans benefit too, and crucially, the animals are saved too thanks to advances in science.

“The Humanimal Trust only funds projects that are useful for both living animals and humans. For example in Scotland we’re funding a PhD student to study prostate cancers and the biomarkers to pick it up earlier – that’s very useful for both animals and humans.”

With work on animals pushing medical boundaries, especially in prosthetics, Fitzpatrick is evangelical about how animal medicine can lead the way for humans.

“Two hundred and fifty years ago vet schools saw animals as the model for human disease, then the two medical worlds split. That never made sense to me. You can combine the two, save money and learn from each other.

“And now I lecture at human medical conferences all the time. Before the telly show I would turn up like Michael Flatley at the end and it was ‘go on Irish guy, dance!’ but now it’s ‘regenerative medicine, stem cell technology, new implant technology, Noel’s doing that now before we do it.’”

And these days he’s the keynote speaker.

What Fitzpatrick is doing is challenging the conventional paradigm of medical research where the humans are the most important and as we become more aware of animal consciousness there’s a corresponding awareness of their rights, and ethical questions to consider. For Fitzgerald the way we treat animals is an indicator of how compassionate we are as a society.

“The most exciting thing for me is the realisation that animals have sentience, feelings, needs and wants, and as a result the only way we’re going to survive is if we look after the animals and those on the planet.

“Society demands moral compassion,” says Fitzpatrick, “but people don’t relate to big concepts like that until you show it to them in a language they understand. That’s why people watch The Supervet. It’s not a story about science, it’s a story about love, and hope, with science in the background. I wanted to call the tour ‘The Love and Hope Tour’ but they told me that was too Jon Bon Jovi.”

Welcome to My World it is and Fitzpatrick wants people to have “a rollicking good time” and some “really big thoughts at certain moments”.

“They won’t really realise they’re thinking them till afterwards. Like with the telly show, and the lady in Gatwick who came up to me this morning and threw her arms around me and said ‘I just want to tell you I love you.’ Why? Because she was prompted by something in her from a moment in time in a television show.

“My consulting room is a profound environment and there are big decisions made on the show. We’re on a journey together. And the thing that people have to realise is that I fail, you know... every surgeon fails, and that’s not easy… you have to hang your ego on the door, and you look in the mirror and know you failed. You have to accept that, because biology will always humble you.”

Speaking of biology, on a less profound note, when you tell people you’re interviewing Supervet, everyone has one question, why is he single?

“Everybody asks that,” he says. “I read a great quote last week, ‘if you’re alone you’re never lonely if you like the person you’re with’. It’s a great quote. Em… I work a lot. A lot. There’s a paucity of time. But I won’t be single forever,” he says, “and I’m grand.”

And he does live with Keira Knightley. That’s the Border Terrier Keira Knightley, named after his ideal woman, if she wasn’t already married and Supervet wasn’t working 24/7.

As for the show, Welcome to My World is an immersive experience, what Fitzpatrick calls an “audio visual extravaganza”. There will be a virtual vomiting West Highland Terrier, a Bionic Bunker, where he plans to be suspended in a virtual operating theatre and the audience will be able to see, and feel what he does. He will explain bionics, in a virtual world.

“I’m excited like a child, can I do something that’s never been done before, on stage? And the stuff I’m doing on animals sometimes hasn’t been done in a human yet so with a virtual theatre, we can show the future.”

The show also has an autobiographical element, covering his life story from being born 50 years ago in County Laois, Ireland and growing up on a farm to becoming Supervet.

“The first half has funny things that happened and the second half is more virtual, like doing my first ever orthopaedic operation on a dog on a kitchen table in a farmer’s cottage where he lived with his cow and without electricity.”

There’s music too, influences from his youth; Queen, U2, Kasabian. Nowadays Brian May is a friend but the teenage Fitzpatrick, just started vet school in Dublin, was in the crowd of 100,000 that watched them on their final 1986 tour.

“When I saw Freddie Mercury in a tracksuit and crown in front of a massive horde of drunken Irish people singing One Vision, ‘one man, one vision, one solution’ it changed what I thought was possible. I believe there should be just one solution.

“And I also believe there’s an important allegory for solving racial and gender conflicts in society through the love of an animal. Because the animal doesn’t care, doesn’t care whether you’re white, black, yellow, what sexuality you are. It loves you and licks your face anyway. Animals don’t judge. They cut through all the shit. They’re not on Facebook. They don’t troll people and they don’t discriminate in that way. And animals make us the best we can be.”

At the same time as he’s been writing the show, Fitzpatrick has been writing his autobiography, still not complete. For the process he interviewed his mother, Rita.

“Yeah, I love my mam. She’s an invalid now, and daddy’s dead a while. I’ve given them each a chapter because I was fascinated by their history. I interviewed mum and she was absolutely f***ing brilliant. I sat by her bed and asked her about everything that mattered to her and we chatted all night.

“Writing the book has been quite traumatic at times,” he says. I’ll be honest with you, last Friday night I was writing the chapter about my dad and I was surprised at my reaction, sobbing my heart out about things I didn’t know had influenced other decisions in my life until I wrote them down. It was cathartic in many ways. We had a good relationship but he was a very strict farmer. There was no lovey-dovey and he was of the view that unless the animal had a function there was no point. That wasn’t what I ascribed to but that was the way of the time.”

Young Noel, with his five elder siblings already left home or away at school, and bullied for being “a swot”, spent a lot of time on the farm and identified with the animals, especially his best friend Pirate, the farm dog.

“I just wanted to heal all the animals on the farm. I felt frustrated, useless and not clever enough and not brave enough and not talented enough to save the lambs I saw when I was a kid. I saw so many things I knew could be fixed but we couldn’t fix them and I hated to see an animal in pain, I hated it. So then I made up Vetman as my superhero.”

With a head full of Marvel comics and X-Men, Noel was Vetman and Pirate his sidekick and the boy spent hours telling the dog about their imaginary adventures. “As a ten-year-old, you’re just hugging your dog and thinking about the solutions to every problem in the world, fixing every animal. For Vetman everything was possible, he was the Guardian Angel of Love and could heal anything. That was our dream, me and Pirate. And Vetman had magic bionic dust – that’s where all of that came from.”

And now Vetman is going to be brought back to life in the show. “Isn’t that great!” says Fitzpatrick, voice rising to a squeak of delight. “Although the producer was saying, ‘Noel, you can’t do that because special effects cost a fortune…’”

So what can we expect?

“Ha! You’ll have to come along and see. Laughter, and sadness too, because it’s about life, music, and there will be some big questions. Like what’s more important than the health of planet earth, the health of man, the health of animals, the future?”

For Fitzpatrick, it’s all the same, one vision, One Medicine.

Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick’s Welcome to my World; Friday 9 November, Aberdeen AECC (ww.aecc.co.uk); Saturday 10 November, Glasgow Hydro (www.thessehydro.com); Sunday 11 November, Edinburgh Playhouse (www.atgtickets.com/edinburgh); see noelfitzpatrick live.com for ticket prices and more information