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Taking the lead for veterinary nursing


Earlier this year, after becoming chair of the RCVS veterinary nurses council, Matthew Rendle spoke to Josh Loeb about his career in nursing. This week, following a special celebration of vet nurses organised by the British Veterinary Nursing Association, we profile his story.

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Matthew Rendle’s schooldays in Watford in the 1980s were not particularly happy.

‘I didn’t really enjoy school because I got bullied extensively,’ explains Rendle. ‘I was very short and fat with glasses, so lots of opportunities for being bullied.

‘I started to not go. Without my parents’ knowledge, I simply started not going to school for large chunks of time.’

Rendle was going ‘off the rails’ until a teacher had the foresight to suggest that he might want to make his school absences official – on condition that he undertake regular work experience on days away from the classroom.

‘That teacher was called Mick Swift,’ says Rendle. ‘He was a PE teacher and he was also my form tutor. He could see I was going off the rails, so he took me to one side one day, and – in what was a very unprecedented thing for the 1980s – he said he would allow me to leave school one day a week and go off and do something I might want to do as a career.

‘My dad knew somebody in a local vet practice. I’d always been interested in animals, so I used to go there every Thursday and spend the day there. That was the first time I really experienced what veterinary nursing was.

‘When I was in that practice, I met a few vet nurses who were well established. They were incredibly good. I remember standing watching them, and how well they were able to do the tasks they did, and how much they improved animal welfare. The care they provided and the whole journey of the animal from when it arrived was just incredible.

‘After that, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I had to go back and re-sit one of my GCSEs, but they were very kind. They let me stay there and they offered me a position as a trainee nurse.’

So began Rendle’s career in veterinary nursing – a journey that has seen him attain the role of chief vet nurse at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), travel to exotic countries to undertake conservation work and now become the first male vet nurse to chair the RCVS veterinary nurses (VN) council. On 10 October, he was a keynote speaker at ‘This is us 2020: a celebration of veterinary nursing’, a special event run by the British Veterinary Nursing Association.

Of the teacher who started it all, Rendle recalls: ‘He kind of put me back on the rails. I don’t know where I’d’ve been if it wasn’t for him. It was quite an unusual thing to do at that stage, to say “your attendance is so poor, so you can go and spend the day in a vet practice”.

‘I’ve since gone back and have spoken to him and thanked him, as he was very kind.’

He also credits his mum and dad – whom he thanked in his inaugural speech as chair of VN council earlier this year – for having made ‘sacrifices’ to help him succeed.

After spending the first 13 years of his career in veterinary nursing working at the same Watford practice where he’d done work experience, Rendle was contacted by a friend in 2003 to say there was a vacancy for a vet nurse at London Zoo (run by conservation charity ZSL). Having had a keen interest in wildlife since childhood, Rendle applied – not really expecting to get the job.

‘I think there were hundreds of applicants, and I was lucky enough to be interviewed and was given that position,’ he says. ‘So I went and worked at London Zoo. I was there as a general veterinary nurse for about eight years and was head vet nurse for four or five years.’

Although he left ZSL, which also runs Whipsnade Zoo, three years ago, Rendle has fond memories of his time in the zoo world.

I’ve worked with any species you can name…lions, tigers, bears, komodo dragons, venomous snakes, spiders, penguins

‘I worked with everything from ants to elephants to gorillas,’ he says. ‘I’ve worked with any species you can name, pretty much…I got to work with lions, tigers, bears, komodo dragons, venomous snakes, spiders, penguins – pretty much everything that lives in the zoo.

‘It gave me a lot of respect for veterinary nursing, because working as a veterinary nurse in a zoo environment is quite challenging. It’s challenging in every environment, but I think in zoos you have to have that diversity of knowledge, because one minute you could be treating an arachnid and the next minute you could be treating a primate. I learnt a lot from it.’

His memories from his time working at the zoo include watching the first komodo dragon bred in captivity in Europe hatch (‘It was jaw-droppingly beautiful. I still have the empty egg shell,’ he adds), watching an elephant give birth (‘amazing’) and helping recapture a silverback gorilla.

As part of his conservation work, Matthew Rendle has worked with loggerhead turtles in Athens (left) and West African dwarf crocodiles in Ghana (right)

That ape, called Kumbuka, made headlines in 2016 after briefly escaping from its enclosure into an adjacent zookeeper area, where the animal proceeded to open and drink five litres of undiluted blackcurrant squash.

The gorilla’s escape prompted an evacuation of members of the public from London Zoo and attendance by armed police at the premises – but, thankfully, peaceful coaxing by zoo staff turned out to be all that was needed to encourage the animal to return to captivity.

‘I was involved in the recapture. He was a beautiful, amazingly intelligent animal,’ says Rendle, adding: ‘It was an interesting place to work for sure.’

Also in 2016, Rendle helped establish the Association of Zoo and Exotic Veterinary Nurses, which aims to ‘facilitate excellence’ through education for members of the profession who work with wild animals.

Having decided on a change of direction after more than a decade working for ZSL, Rendle is currently nursing manager and lead exotics nurse for Holly House Vet Hospital, a large referral centre in Leeds. He also regularly undertakes in situ conservation work for the charity Wildlife Vets International. Conservation projects he has been involved in have included a project to rehabilitate injured sea turtles in Greece and assisting with conservation of white-backed vultures in India.

‘As a veterinary nurse, for me, working in the conservation field is one of the best things you can do,’ says Rendle. ‘You use your skills and abilities working with vets to rehabilitate animals and get them back into the wild – and releasing a wild animal back into the wild is just incredible.’

He is also involved in a project to conserve mangabey monkeys in Ghana that may in due course involve reintroducing these animals into areas where they are currently absent.

‘It’s always interesting in conservation to talk about rewilding and how things could be put back, but it needs to be done in a very, very controlled way, because otherwise you end up compromising that animal’s welfare,’ he explains.

However, in spite of enjoying a career many might envy, Rendle is self-effacing about his achievements and is keen to point out that he has experienced challenges – most notably around his own mental health – that have heightened his resolve to try to ‘leave a legacy’ for the next generation of vet nurses.

‘I’m very open about my career and the fact that I’ve had mental health issues in the past,’ he says. ‘I’ve found periods of my career hard. They’ve been challenging and I’ve come out of them mainly through the support of my friends and family and fellow veterinary nurses.

‘But I want people to be realistic about how lots of caring careers are stressful and have challenges. I think it’s important we discuss these things openly rather than sweep them under the carpet.

‘I talk to lots of nurses, and lots of really high-profile nurses have had experiences with negative mental health issues in the past, and I think it’s important we talk about that.’

‘I don’t want anyone to look up to me and think “wow, he looks after lions and tigers and bears and he’s had a perfect career and everything’s been brilliant”, because it definitely hasn’t. But I’ve just kept going and have tried to do my bit to improve the profession.’

At the same time, he is positive about the future of his profession and the changes he is playing his part in making happen through his role on VN council.

‘It’s very easy to moan,’ he says, ‘but you have to do something about it. That’s why I stood up to become part of VN council. It’s really not in my comfort zone at all – I’m not someone who shouts from the rooftops “Look how amazing I am!” It’s just not how I am.

I just want to leave a legacy for the next generation of vet nurses that it’s a better profession than when I started

‘I think I just want to leave a legacy for the next generation of vet nurses that it’s a better profession than when I started. That would make me very happy.

‘And I think that’s already happening. We’re going through a very, very positive period of change for veterinary nursing in the UK. With VN council you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s such an amazing institution and there’s so much potential that I want to make sure I maximise whatever I can do.

‘If I can leave some legacy to the people that follow me, that would be great.’ ●

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