Newly qualified vet Vikki Fowler was thrust into the media spotlight when she was involved with the rescue of a shire horse named Hope. Learning to deal with the media was a steep learning curve.
- British Veterinary Association
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When you got called out to Hope, did you know it would be a life changing day?
Not at all. When I initially took the call, hearing that it was to a thin filly collapsed in a field, I was expecting the outcome to be euthanasia. I wasn't expecting a horse with such fight in her; the look on her face when she was lifted to her feet stayed with me.
What were you faced with?
Hope was one of a group of thin horses; she was collapsed, lying on a steep embankment with her nose in a stream and one of her hind legs was trapped by barbed wire. She was emaciated, weak, hypothermic and going into shock. She was extremely lucky to have escaped a broken leg, but was at risk of pneumonia and further collapse. When I told the owner that she needed be stabled, warmed, dried and given food, he didn't take me seriously; fortunately the neighbouring riding school ladies kept a close eye on her and rang the RSPCA when she collapsed again.
What made you decide to buy Hope?
I did not believe the owner would take her to a stable and nurse her, so I offered to take her on and do this on condition that she was signed over to me, but the owner would not let her go without a financial agreement. As he owed the practice a considerable sum, he agreed to hand her over to me if her value was deducted from the outstanding bill. I agreed to this and planned to pay the amount to the practice myself. However, my very understanding boss wrote this off.
What special needs does she have?
To start with, Hope needed round-the-clock care. Initially, she had to be lifted by JCB, but as she got stronger the number of people needed to help her stand decreased until she could rise unaided. She had brachial plexus damage and so dragged her toe; this took almost six months to resolve. She had mud rash, lice, mites and worms, as well as wire wounds. Additionally, the second time she collapsed, she had been trodden on by other horses causing numerous bruises and haematomas. Pressure sores developed over her hips and on her face because of the emaciation, which were difficult to treat and left permanent scars.
More challenging were her psychological issues; she was terrified of other horses and would tremble if a small pony so much as looked at her. This developed into violent dives at horses that approached her. It took a lot of time and patience from my old horse to reintegrate her into a herd situation. Other issues stemmed from lack of handling. She wasn't afraid, but she had never worn a halter or had her feet attended to.
Tell us about the media interest.
The media interest began about a week after the rescue. Hope's story appeared in a double page spread in the Daily Mail. The attention highlighted the plight of the remaining horses and they were rescued soon after. Since then, she has featured in many newspapers and appeared on Granada TV.
How did the press treat you?
The press rang at all times of the day and night, to my mobiles and the office. Initially it was exhausting as I was working during the day and caring for Hope at night. As she got better, she needed less of my time, so I could get some sleep and be a little less emotional when telling her story. I found it difficult to watch what I said. If I worded something badly, it was taken out of context to mean something completely different. However, most of the journalists who wrote about Hope were nice.
Did you ask anyone for advice?
I took advice from everyone I could but, at the end of the day, it was my name being put to what I said. It sounds cynical, but I would caution against taking anyone's word on anything. Everyone has an agenda, and getting caught up in a political type of dispute is awful. My boss and my mum were the greatest help in deciding what and what not to say.
Do you have any advice for others facing a similar situation?
It is important to know what the vet's role is and the authority we have (or don't have). Standing back and doing as you're told in a welfare situation is not advisable as you may need to stand up in court to defend your actions. I would say, look at what you have in front of you – not the stories you are told – make your professional opinion, and don't be afraid to stick by it and follow it through.
What about the legal aspects?
What I had been taught at university hadn't prepared me for the real world situation. At vet school I had been told how to recognise abuse, but not told about the grey areas, what actions could be taken and how. Between Hope's nightly checks, my mum and I read every piece of welfare-related legislation, and their guidelines, to find out what was legal, what was recommended and where the borders lay. It is well worth reading the legislation. In a welfare situation, the vet should be in charge so we need to know the law.
You have both won awards; what were they?
I received the Vet of the Year award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which was a huge honour. My grandma nominated me, and I was completely unaware of it until I learnt I had won. The award was presented at the House of Commons by Brian May.
Seven months after Hope's rescue, she was invited to a rescue horse class at the Supreme Showdown competition and she won the championship. It was the first time she had travelled since the night she was rescued. Given the issues I had halter breaking her, I was delighted to be able to show her in a bridle and bit, but what made me proudest was how she behaved around the horses and the frantic environment of a show – she was perfect.
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