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A practitioner with a taste for adventure
  1. Luke Gamble

Abstract

Luke Gamble set up Worldwide Veterinary Services and says that working with the charity is the thing that fires him up about being a vet: ‘There is nothing better than being immersed into situations full of adventure and challenge’

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I CAN'T imagine any vet not relishing the chance to practise their vocation, free of economic restraint, where the only thing that matters is helping animals and the people who may depend on them. All the vets and nurses who work for me spend a week working for Worldwide Veterinary Services (WVS) as part of their contract. It is great for morale and they always come back buzzing and refreshed. I recommend it to any colleague who is feeling a bit worn down.

I run the charity on a voluntary basis and, while it might sound as though I want to go and work in a slum or a township on a daily basis, in truth I probably enjoy it as much as I do because I only do it a few times a year. Most of my time is spent running Pilgrims Veterinary Practice, a four- to five-vet mixed practice in the north of the New Forest, and a Pet Travel company (PetAir UK). I used to run an emergency service covering 28 practices in Bournemouth and Poole as well, but I sold it last year to focus on other projects.

Having qualified from Bristol in 1999, I was incredibly lucky to find my first job in a super supportive mixed practice under the patient mentorship of a brilliant boss, Tim Spotswood; I cut my teeth learning what being a vet was really all about and loved (nearly) every second of it!

The first job is most important in terms of shaping and moulding new graduates. I was no exception in that I needed lots of encouragement and support from colleagues and friends to develop basic competence and confidence in dealing with first-opinion mixed practice. I will always be indebted to those who had such a positive influence on my formative years in the profession.

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It was always my ambition to pursue mixed practice and I haven't wavered from that. I have huge admiration for my friends who have attained specialist status in specific fields; their level of skill and knowledge is astounding, but it wasn't something that appealed to me. I didn't have the focus to stick to becoming brilliant at one thing, and I would never have been able to choose a specific discipline.

As such, I spent the first few years of my career trying to get as many basic skill sets under my belt as possible. With no aspirations to become an academic high-flyer or a pioneer in a specific field, I wanted to develop the skills to be able to treat any type of sick or injured animal I encountered as best I could. I aspire to be a competent safe pair of hands across the board, and I take solace in the fact that referral vets need good GPs.

I left my first job to take a position at the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth; equine was my weakest area and I was keen to learn about a species that is the economic mainstay of the developing world. I really enjoyed my time there. Three months of the nine, I was seconded to foot-and-mouth disease duties, which was fairly harrowing as I found myself leading a slaughter team for a large chunk of the outbreak. It was a life experience in dealing with situations outside my comfort zone, and I came through it with another set of skills I wouldn't have ever gained otherwise. They've come in handy over the years so, as horrible as it was, it has equipped me to deal with other difficult situations should they arise.

Leaving Sidmouth, I undertook a year-long clinical scholarship in large animal medicine and surgery at Cambridge, which was fantastic and boosted my confidence in farm and camelid work. It's also where I met my wife, Cordelia, who is also a vet. I followed the scholarship with a couple of years focusing on small animal and wildlife/exotic work. I felt the best way of doing this was locuming, and I spent a couple of years working around the UK, building up a bit of money and, in between, I travelled overseas to help animal charities that needed a hand. Sometimes I went with a friend, sometimes alone; it was a brilliant way to see a country, get to know the people, and I always got a bargain rate staying in a dog shelter.

It was during this time, towards the end of 2002, that I decided to set up WVS (www.wvs.org.uk). Since then, it has grown exponentially and has a fantastic team behind it, making it grow into what will hopefully be a leading international animal charity. None of the projects or businesses I have ever been involved with would have been successful without a brilliant team of like-minded individuals. I dispute the philosophy that everyone is replaceable and, while I employ around 50 people now, I still find the management aspect the hardest by a mile.

My first business was a small computer company, purchased in 2003 with my brother-in-law. Computers were never my thing, but it was handy for developing subsequent ventures. It's pretty much wound down now, but it means that I can manage e-mails, web hosting, etc, in-house, which adds up to a fair saving over the years.

I followed this with setting up the emergency service in 2004. I worked on average two-and-a-half nights out of three for a year, staying overnight at the clinic I was running it from, and also being a full-time locum. By the end of it, I felt I had my emergency stripes, and I also had the start of a viable business and a bit of money to get me going.

After Cords and I got married in 2005, I set up Pilgrims, initially as a 100 per cent farm practice from the back of my truck, but over the past seven years it has become much more small animal/equine orientated and we now have two surgeries. I have no plans to expand it; I love it the way it is and want to keep it a straightforward traditional country practice. I won't tail dock though, which drives many of my clients mad, as most of them have working dogs and breed them as such, but that's the way it is. While we have had a new client register every day for the past four years, it's not all plain sailing, and we still have a long way to go to make it a winner. I have huge admiration for my former bosses who set up and developed practices into thriving businesses with, seemingly, comparative ease.

PetAir also started towards the end of 2005, and is now the biggest pet exporter to Australia and New Zealand from the UK. We have just set up a company in South Africa, imaginatively called PetAir SA. I would love to take credit for this, but it is almost entirely down to my partners in the business – Bob Ghandour, a vet I worked with at my emergency clinic in Bournemouth, and another brother-in-law, both of whom I managed to coerce into coming in with me.

I guess the most exciting thing career-wise was my involvement in two, five-part series, ‘Vet Adventures’, which I filmed in 2010. An independent production company had contacted me out the blue and subsequently came with me on a WVS trip to the refugee camps in Kenya. It was a real eye-opener running treatment clinics for livestock, and we were welcomed with open arms by the Red Cross, the camp managers and the people. Two of us treated over 9000 animals in 11 days, and it was one of the most intense and worthwhile WVS trips I have ever done. The humanitarian aspect of animal charity work is important to me. Off the back of that trip I was offered a TV series, and from that I got book deals. With all that, and starting a family, it's been an exciting few years.

I don't know what's next. WVS set up an international training centre in India last year and registered an Indian charity, so I am involved with developing that. Personally, I am enjoying being at home a bit more, with all the chaos and fun of having three young children, and it's great to focus on UK things. Getting the balance right is key, and I guess that's all part of my management challenge.

I still have a huge amount to do, plenty to learn and am really only just getting going. Whatever the future holds, I am hugely looking forward to it and feel very proud to be a member of such a brilliant profession.

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