The vets following in the footsteps of their childhood heroes

Peter Wright and Andrew Routh

Peter Wright and Andrew Routh (Image: DURRELL WILDLIFE TRUST )

When Peter Wright and Andrew Routh arrived at Liverpool University to study veterinary science in 1974, they were both very clear about who had inspired them to work with animals.

Peter’s role model was James Herriot, the Yorkshire vet who became a household name thanks to his bestselling books and the TV series All Creatures Great And Small.

Andrew’s greatest influence was the conservationist Gerald Durrell, author of My Family And Other Animals (which spawned ITV series The Durrells), who went on to found the Jersey Zoological Park.

Remarkably, both men have since taken on the mantle of their respective heroes.

Peter became Herriot’s apprentice at his practice in Thirsk, Yorkshire, and took over the business when he retired and is still there to this day.

Meanwhile, Andrew is head vet at the zoo that Durrell founded in 1959.

And next week they will appear together on TV as part of Channel 5’s Big Week At The Zoo which includes the latest on conservation stories from around the UK.

Peter’s and Andrew’s passion for animal welfare shines through from the outset.

In one clip we see the two friends, both aged 61, peering with concern into a suitcase apparently filled with 54 clingfilm-wrapped tortoises from Madagascar.

It is an exhibit mocked-up to closely resemble a real suitcase that was detained in the Far East.

“These are virtually extinct in the wild,” says Andrew as he looks at the pitiful sight of the golden high-domed creatures tightly crushed together like a load of tortoiseshell shoes.

“These ploughshare tortoises are critically endangered and the biggest threat is illegal trade. Unfortunately, they are one of the easiest animals to poach from the wild because you just pick them up and walk off.”

But given that the world’s most endangered tortoise is highly prized as a trophy pet – worth up to £35,000 each – the stakes are disturbingly high.

Peter, who is now the star of Channel 5’s The Yorkshire Vet – the seventh series of which starts next month – finds the barbarity hard to stomach.

James Herriot with a dog

Peter’s role model was James Herriot (Image: GETTY )

It really beggars belief and shows just what man can do to our beloved animals

Peter Wright

“How very sad. These fellas belong in the wild,” he says and gently shakes his head as he adds: “It really beggars belief and shows just what man can do to our beloved animals.”

The story ends on a high note, however, with the news that a unique tagging programme, developed by Jersey Zoo’s Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, will enable more of the creatures to be released back into the wild.

The Daily Express caught up with both men last week to discuss their new joint venture.

Speaking from his practice in Thirsk, Peter recalls how he started out as an apprentice to James Herriot – real name James “Alf” Wight – and his eccentric senior partner Donald Sinclair, who was known as Siegfried Farnon in the long-running 1970s TV series All Creatures Great And Small, where he was played with bombastic aplomb by the late Robert Hardy.

And he has plenty of memories of both.

“Alf and Donald used to say to me: ‘One day, all this will be yours’ and they were right,” says Peter, who is now the senior partner.

“I was born in Thirsk but it was the head of careers at my grammar school who suggested I consider veterinary science. That was after I turned down dentistry – the idea of looking in people’s mouths all day long filled me with horror.

“Because I’d always had a passion for farming, he said, ‘Look, I’ll speak to Jimmy Wight, Alf Wight’s son’ – whom he had taught – and he fixed me up with a placement.

I was 17 years old, and within an hour of being there I knew it was for me.

Gerald Durrell

Andrew’s greatest influence was the conservationist Gerald Durrell. (Image: GETTY)

It was the whole unpredictability of what was going to happen next. In 10 minutes’ time you could be called to calve a cow.”

That was 1974, four years after the publication of If Only They Could Talk – Herriot’s first book of semi-autobiographical anecdotes.

“A relative said, ‘You want to read this book,’ and I did, after my first shift. It was magical.”

Peter went to university later that year to pursue his passion and met Andrew.

He said: “We were in the same hall of residence before we moved to a shared house together in Toxteth.

I spent all my time at the local vets while Andy spent all his at a small, not very well-run zoo.”

Andrew had grown up in Leeds in the mid-1960s. “Back then the TV was black and white, there were two channels and three faces,” he says.

“Good old David Attenborough, already building his career.

Sir Peter Scott, son of Scott of the Antarctic, who founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

And Gerald Durrell. “Of the three, he was the more accessible through his books, which I read as a seven, eight and nine- year-old.

They were very exciting and vivid in the way that he portrayed his theme of ‘work to be done’.

Reading them shaped my future decision to go to vet school. He made it clear we were losing things from our planet and was already asking what we could do about it.

The other 49 on our course arrived because of James Herriot and I arrived because of Gerald Durrell,” Peter agrees: “Andy is a round peg in a round hole.

He’s working just where he should be.

He was a young Gerald Durrell from the very beginning, and fanatical about zoo work – within our year group he was classed as something of an oddity for it.”

While his peers were happy to study domestic animals, Andrew was drawn to the wild.

He says: “You work from first principles. If you have a lame zebra or a lame horse, the physiology is much the same.

Cast of all creatures great and small


All Creatures Great and Small inspired Peter (Image: NC)

Or here at the zoo, if I have a problem with an orangutan, I can draw parallels because anatomy holds good across all animals. As does the compassion for them – something that Peter and I share.”

Today, after a globe-trotting career which has included working with orangutans in Borneo, bears in Thailand and turtles in Greece, Andrew is at the forefront of the work to continue Durrell’s legacy.

He explains: “We are up with the leaders in the world when it comes to building ‘assurance populations’ – species which have been bred to the point where they can go back into the wild.

Gerald was always worried that the larger species attract greater attention but he was aware of the whole web of life and also found the smaller species charismatic.

That’s why our work tends to be involved with less well-known species, such as the ploughshare tortoise.”

Jersey Zoo has one other vet and a veterinary nurse, who between them are responsible for more than 1,400 animals. Andrew says: “Not only are they experienced, they are also on first-name terms with their animals.

They won’t give me a species or a reference number. Instead, they’ll say, ‘Would you have a look at Leaf?’ Leaf is a golden lion tamarin – slightly lame on her left paw so she’s getting medication now.”

Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, Peter has just taken a call from a woman in tears.

He says: “Norman, her pet lamb, has broken his leg and she wants him fixed.

He’s only a lamb, but he’s very dear to her.”

Although Channel 5’s The Yorkshire Vet has brought Peter a degree of fame that he finds amusing, it cannot compare with the impact of All Creatures Great And Small in the 1970s and ’80s.

He says: “On a Wednesday and Friday, after an open consultation hour, Alf would set time aside to meet members of the public who would come from as far as America, Australia and Japan to see him and get their books signed.

“There would be a 50 metre-long queue outside but he would invite everyone in to the waiting room and make time for them all. He said that was the very least he could do.

He was very unassuming and gentle.

“We worked together from 1982 until 1990 when Donald had a stroke and Alf said it was time for him to go too.

Alf’s son Jim, now 74, then took over as senior partner and I got a promotion.

You’ve got to say we’ve been lucky,” he says in a TV clip to his old friend. “Yes, and it’s all turned out for the good,” agrees Andrew.

● Big Week At The Zoo presented by Helen Skelton and Nick Baker runs from Monday to Friday at 8pm on Channel 5

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