Andrew Higgins started his career in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC), where he was rapidly deployed to Oman as part of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. He has recently written a book about his experiences.
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How did ‘With the SAS and Other Animals’ come to be written?
For a 26-year-old recently qualified vet to be posted to join an SAS squadron in a remote corner of south-east Arabia was both exciting and terrifying. The challenge of providing the only veterinary cover in an area the size of Hungary was pretty daunting, but the RAVC was there to help the animals of a poor, pastoralist, livestock-based population that had been battered by war. The SAS was supporting the forces of the Sultan of Oman to drive communist insurgents from the tribal areas, and in parallel with the military operations the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign aimed to show that the Sultan understood that the needs of his people included healthcare for the animals on which they were so dependent. I had a lot of fun and made some toe-curling mistakes, but I kept a diary and this provided the basis for the book 35 years later.
Why did you join the army?
I had always wanted to be an equine vet but I was not ready to commit myself to practice immediately after graduation and needed to see the world. The RAVC gave me that opportunity; before Oman I worked in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles, with a sizeable Army Dog Unit providing guard dogs for the prisons and explosives search dogs. We lost soldiers and dogs during my six-month tour. I grew up very fast.
What happened after the army?
I returned to Oman to work for the Sultan for a couple of years providing veterinary care for the Royal Stables, farms, camels and dogs. It was a vibrant period as the country was emerging from the war and the economy was becoming transformed. From this unique experience I envisaged a professional life working overseas, so I enrolled for a Masters degree at the Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine in Edinburgh. This led me to the export division of the Wellcome Foundation as its veterinary adviser for the Middle East, which took me to every Arab country over a period of five years. It was a dynamic operation and we won the Queen's Award for Export Achievement for three successive years.
Were you always travelling?
With Wellcome I was away for half of the year, but then I got married and grounding followed. Happily, Wellcome and the Horserace Betting Levy Board funded me to do a PhD at the Royal Veterinary College under Professor Peter Lees and alongside Sir John Vane's group at the Wellcome Research Laboratories. We did some interesting studies on the role and control of inflammation in horses.
What was your proudest moment?
I was appointed director of the Animal Health Trust in 1988 and was there until 1999. My job involved being chief executive of an independent and world-class research and referral centre. During the 13 years I was at Newmarket we were able to relocate all of the Trust's activities on to one site at Lanwades Park, to attract more top scientists and to create new facilities. I seemed to spend a lot of my time fundraising, but we had a fantastic team and it continues to be a centre of excellence in its field.
What do you do now?
I have edited The Veterinary Journal for 20 years and am thrilled that it is ranked eighth of 156 veterinary titles worldwide, and receives over 1200 submissions a year.
I have always been involved with animal sport – horse and camel racing, as well as Fédération Equestre Internationale events – and I was recently asked by the Greyhound Board of Great Britain to chair a review, which led to my appointment as the board's independent doping and medication adviser. I am also involved with several animal charities and am chairman of the trustees of the Retired Greyhound Trust.
What was the best piece of advice you were given?
Never dwell on ‘if only’. Make the best decision you can on the basis of the evidence you have at the time. Yes, you will sometimes get it wrong, but have confidence in your judgement.
Tell us something not many people know about you.
I have been a camel consultant and worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization and a number of countries in the Arabian Gulf. When little was known about camel medicine I even put together a little book, ‘The Camel in Health and Disease’, published by Baillière Tindall in 1986 – I think you might struggle to find a copy now!
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