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Ten-minute chat
  1. James Barnett


James Barnett works as a Veterinary Investigation Officer for the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency. He is also veterinary consultant to the charity British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR)

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How did you get involved in marine life rescue?

I had an interest in zoo work at university and saw practice at Whipsnade and Jersey zoos. I was incredibly fortunate to land a job at Whipsnade in 1989 after only a year in practice. It was an amazing experience, and I had no desire to return to practice when my three-year contract expired. The Cornish Seal Sanctuary was advertising for a vet at the time, and I jumped at the chance. Within a year of starting, the sanctuary had been bought out by the Sea Life Centres, and within three years I was vet for the whole company. It was varied and challenging work, but ultimately took a toll on family life as I worked long hours and was away from home a great deal.

In 1998, I moved into clinical pathology, but retained my interests in marine mammals through BDMLR. I first joined up with the charity in 1992 on the trail of a beluga whale that had escaped from a Crimean dolphinarium into the Black Sea. I have been veterinary director of and latterly consultant to BDMLR for 13 years, and have helped to put together protocols for response to live-stranded cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), trained lay people and vets in marine mammal rescue and am regularly contacted for advice on veterinary aspects of marine mammals.

As a pathologist you are also involved in postmortem examinations; what's the most unusual creature you have examined?

Where I am based in Truro, we carry out postmortem examinations not only on farm animals but also on cetaceans for the Defra-funded UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme. Predominantly, we receive common dolphins and harbour porpoises, but occasionally something a little different comes along. This year, we carried out a portmortem examination on a Cuvier's beaked whale on the north Cornwall coast; only the second in England. A couple of years ago, we had a first for England, a 4.5 m long basking shark.

James Barnett stomach tubing a common dolphin and (right) carrying out a postmortem examination on a Cuvier's beaked whale

Photos: (left) BDMLR; (right) Faye Archell

What other activities does your job involve you in?

Much of my job centres on farm animal disease surveillance. We are in a big dairy cattle area, and cattle-related postmortem examinations, sample analyses, reports and advice make up a large proportion of our work. Other livestock are also received, plus the occasional alpaca, zoo animal and, of course, cetaceans and a few seals. I also manage a TB project.

What do you like about your job?

My passion is marine mammals, but I do enjoy postmortem examinations of most species; it is intensely satisfying to arrive at a diagnosis!

What do you not like?

Rotten carcases. Also, like many, I don't enjoy long meetings or dealing with paperwork, but I accept it needs to be done. The uncertainty over the impact of the Government's future spending cuts is also very concerning.

Why is your job important?

Disease surveillance is critical to the UK farming industry and government, to ensure we are on top of threats from new and emerging diseases and new presentations of endemic diseases. As for cetaceans, the strandings programme has helped to identify trends in cetacean mortality that have direct implications for species conservation.

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?

My career has been varied, and I have never really mapped out a career path. Maybe that wasn't financially sound, but it has certainly been stimulating. So, my advice is: don't restrict yourself in your career options. Leave college, get a good initial grounding in practice, and see what opportunities come along.

What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?

When I was wrestling with a particular moral dilemma over a career option, a good friend of mine at church helped me put this into perspective with the words: ‘Being a Christian does not mean you have the word “mug” written across your forehead’.

What was your proudest moment?

Right up there are my first anaesthesia of an adult African elephant and rehabilitating a common dolphin in 1993, possibly the first in the UK.

… and your most embarrassing?

There is one I can't shake off, as I keep on being reminded about it even 20 years later! We had been darting an Indian rhino in a stable at Whipsnade with antibiotics, with darting access via a small hole in the wall. On one occasion, I must have hit the pelvis because the dart bounced straight back through the window, hitting me between the eyes – luckily sideways on. Fortunately, the animal was none the worse for the experience.

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