When Professor Noel Fitzpatrick saw a rhinoceros in the wild for the first time the majestic animal took his breath away.
The famed veterinary surgeon, known as The Supervet, is used to treating domesticated pets at his Surrey clinic, so this large and impressive animal was a sight to behold.
“Wow,” gasps Noel, 55, during a special one-off show The Supervet: Safari Special. “That’s just incredible.”
The Irish vet, who is at the forefront of innovation in orthopaedics and neurosurgery for small animals in the UK, uses his expertise to care for wildlife in South Africa.
“My job back home is to look after a cat or a dog, their job is to look after a species on the edge of extinction, I really hope I can make some kind of difference,” Noel says.
He visits Gondwana Game Reserve in the Western Cape and hears about the plight of endangered rhinos, whose numbers have dropped by more than 95% in the past century, with the main reason being illegal poachers.
These rhinos are killed for their horns that are worth more than their weight in gold on the black market, despite being made of keratin, which is the same substance as fingernails.
“It’s absolutely and utterly absurd that human beings are chasing this and killing these beautiful animals,” a taken-aback Noel says.
His first task is helping to insert a tracker in the horn of one of the oldest males on the reserve, a rhino named Bruno.
The large animal has lost his tracker several times from around his leg due to his penchant for running after female rhinos, so implanting the tracker to keep him under surveillance and away from danger is a brand new procedure for the reserve.
First Noel and the team look for the animal from a chopper then tranquillise him before giving him the implant.
Noel then travels to the world’s first rhino orphanage to meet adorable Kolisi, who was attacked by a pack of hyenas that killed his mother and mauled his foot.
With part of the foot bone eaten away, The Supervet assists with building and designing a prosthetic foot, the first for the species, to help the animal who has developed scoliosis due to the injury. “Everything is impossible, until it happens, the worst thing would be not to try,” he explains.
The programme then follows Noel as he heads off to help two big cats at Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in the eastern Free State, which is again a first for him.
“It’s with equal measure of intrigue and trepidation that I come in because of course I’ve never dealt with surgery on big cats before, the biggest cat I’ve ever worked on is a Maine Coon,” the professor says. “It will be an extraordinary privilege to be in the presence of these magnificent animals.”
The first patient is Laziz, a 15-year-old Bengal tiger rescued from a private zoo in the Gaza Strip, who is suffering from limb deformities and osteoarthritis.
It became known as the worst zoo in the world. Laziz was confined to a small space with a concrete floor.
The other big cat Noel sets about helping is Ricky, a 13-year-old lion with deformed front legs due to mistreatment and captive breeding who was kept as a pet in Romania.
Noel operates on both animals and they become the first ever wild big cats to have a new treatment for osteoarthritis. Upon seeing Laziz walk after his operation, the veterinary surgeon beams with satisfaction.
It’s incredible to see him waking up, because you genuinely feel that you’ve made a difference. All this technology is the same for human, the same for a dog, the same for a tiger,” he says.
“We are all one, if people could just realise that for a moment, wouldn’t the world be such a better place?”
And it appears that Noel might have fallen in love with his new role caring for wild animals, as he admits: “Truly I have felt more at ease and welcome by this environment than I ever have in my life, it’s overwhelmingly beautiful.”
Speaking of the whole experience, Noel says: “Having the opportunity to travel to South Africa and spend time with the magnificent animals of the savannah and the wonderful selfless people who dedicate their lives to looking after them – often in very difficult circumstances, including illegal poaching and conflict – was truly life-changing.
“I found the dedication, compassion and clinical skill of the veterinary professionals I met profoundly inspirational. What I experienced was eye opening to the immense challenges and responsibility we have as humankind to step up and look after these incredible animals who are intrinsic to our legacy on planet earth.”
This article by Lydia Veljanovski was first published by The Mirror on 22 February 2023. Lead Image: The Irish vet, who is at the forefront of innovation in orthopaedics and neurosurgery for small animals in the UK, uses his expertise to care for wildlife in South Africa (Image: Channel 4).
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