Dani Willey with fellow student vets Charlie Tewson, left, and Matt Wilkinson

Wild Thing… i Think I Love You

5th September 2014

BBC2 television series ‘Young Vets’ presents a fascinating insight into the complexities of training for this demanding job. Clare Finney talks to local girl Dani Willey, one of the cohort followed by the cameras during the last months of their four year course.

It is early morning at the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, and vet-in-training Dani Willey is on small animal surgery. She’s just been presented with a fluffy, black and white cat called Peppy, whose courteous, Barbour-clad owner is passing her iPhone to Dani anxiously. “She’s had a lot of breathing problems because her nose is just dripping – I’ve taken a picture of it.” It looks like a fairly minor problem – a cat with a head cold – but Dani, after four years of study with the Royal Veterinary College, is not so sure.

It may be something more serious, explains the voiceover with that air of barely suppressed drama unique to ‘real life’ programmes. “We’re worried it is something more sinister, like cancer,” Dani explains. One of the eponymous Young Vets of the BBC2 series, she is clearly concerned. Together with her supervisor, she observes the MRI scan of the cat’s head with bated breath, then heaves a sigh of relief as it shows up clear and free of cancer. Yet the problem – the stream of feline mucus haunting the little pink nose – still remains.

Fast forward 20 minutes, toward the end of the programme, and the mystery is solved: Peppy has a polyp. Dani watches, fascinated, as her supervisor grabs it with what are essentially large tweezers, and yanks it free. “That was gross” she laughs, as it pops out with a sickening yet satisfying schlup sound, and the surgeon laughs with her. “Do you think you could do that?” she asks. Dani seems doubtful – yet to judge by her impressive academic and practical results during her time in vet school, it seems highly likely that, by the time she graduates a few months later, she will be pulling polyps with ease.

It is what she’s always wanted – not Peppy’s polyps specifically, but the profession: a vet working with small animals. “Mum says from the moment I could talk I have loved them, and from the moment I knew what a vet was that’s what I wanted to be.” She grew up round two dogs, an endless succession of cats, and some chickens down a small track near the Stag Pub in Chorleywood – she’s here now, as we’re chatting – but she’s actually spent the past week down in Devon on placement in a large practice for small animals and pets.

She’s only just got back. Last night, she was up until 4am on call for her catchment area, and she’s knackered. “It’s scary being on call at the beginning,” she says. “Anyone can call on you at any time, and you either give advice on the phone or recommend you go and see them, and advise how much it costs” – a crucial deciding factor for many these days. “I had one last night. A woman found a bat with a broken wing. She said she’d take it to a rescue centre if I could recommend one, but she didn’t want a call out as it would cost her.” As budgeting goes, that’s one of the less upsetting circumstances – a mouse called Cracker nearly comes a cropper in Episode Three when its owner finds out how much his operation would be – but Dani is acutely aware of how life-and-death decisions on price can be.

“It’s why I don’t want to go into farming” she says. “I enjoy being outside and driving around the countryside, but with farmers it’s all about the money. If it’s going to cost more to operate than they’ll get out the animal, they’ll have it put to sleep.” Loving them as she does, Dani struggles to countenance the view of animals as mere moneymakers, though she knows that for farmer “it’s their livelihood. They have to decide like that.” For her own part, though, she’d rather work with owners who’d do “absolutely anything” for their four-legged friends.

Her mother is a case in point. “At one point we had five cats because she kept rescuing them – she had a big influence on me.” Growing up, she was an avid watcher of veterinary programmes much like the one she is appearing in now. “It’s so weird to think that I am in a show I would have watched when I was young,” she grins – “I loved Vets in Practice and Animal Hospital.” That, horse riding, and animal charities were her main preoccupation outside school, yet you don’t get into – and stay in – the RVC without a very hard, very academic slog.

There are exams every single year. Fail them, and you’re off the course or repeating those terms. “Most people just decided to drop out at that point, feeling it was not for them,” Dani says. That said, to get in in the first place you’ve good science A-levels and a shed-load of work experience to accrue. “You’ve got to be pretty sure this is what you want to do with your life,” she continues. Even for an aspiring Dr Dolittle such as herself, learning the anatomy of every domestic animal going proved a fairly daunting task.

“I remember revising for finals and saying to Matt [Matt Wilkinson, Dani’s housemate and another Young Vet], ‘There isn’t room in my head… as one fact goes in another goes straight out’. Their bodies are all so different,” she groans. “You’ve a cow with four stomachs, a hamster with two and a horse with a crazy colon going all around its body.” When her final results came out, Danni so convinced herself she had failed she burst into tears before she had even opened them. “I was utterly amazed when I found out I’d passed, and qualified as vet,” she says in disbelief.

At the time of writing, the big-reveal episode of their finals has yet to be aired on BBC 2. I’ve no idea whether Judy – the mature student in whose side the prevalence of mathematics of vet surgery is a constant thorn – or the talented, self-critical Elly Berry have passed or failed. The blurb gives little away. ‘Charlie Tewson has somehow managed to reach his final placement without learning how to do a very basic operation – spaying a cat… will he pass muster?’ And how will the grief stricken owners of Lolly, a terminally-ill Bassett Hound, decide her fate? Helping them is Matt Wilkinson’s unenviable job. One thing is for certain though: the Young Vets’ appearance in the programme will have succeeded in inspiring a new generation of vets-in-waiting to pursue their dreams.

For her own part, Dani knows the outcome: five months on, she’s a practicing veterinary surgeon. At the end of her placement in Devon, she will be offered a permanent role. Whether she takes it or not is a different matter – “my boyfriend lives in Dartford and he’s more of a city boy – and I’m not sure I’m ready to move from London yet either, though everyone down there is very lovely.” Still, she’s a while to make her decision and in the immediate future, she’s the televised memories of last year to relive and enjoy.

“I really like it. I like watching everyone else – though when I see myself on camera I just cringe,” she giggles. “I have a nervous laugh I wish I hadn’t done so much, and I feel I look really lanky on telly, too.” Having watched almost all of the episodes, she feels they are somewhat melodramatic, but overall fairly representative of the challenges vets face. “They were always going to hype up certain situations to make them see more dramatic than they were,” she shrugs “ – but it makes for better viewing.” Besides, judging by the number of times Dani mentions tears during our chat, training to work with animals beloved by human beings is no emotional plain sailing.

“Putting an animal asleep is the hardest. You just have to hold it together during the time you are with the owner. You don’t want to appear unprofessional – but you don’t want to appear hard-hearted, either.” With elderly pet owners in particular, it is difficult to stay dry-eyed. “If they’re living by themselves, the pet is often their best friend,” Dani says; the night before we speak she’d wound up in her car, “having a little cry” over a dog she’d put to sleep. But she’s a strong cookie, and if she sheds a tear or two in the quietness of her car at night, it is testimony only to how much she cares.

“I just want to help them. I don’t know why I just feel such a strong bond, but I always have: even when I was tiny apparently, mum says I’d a way with animals.” Where other kids were teasing and tugging on the dog’s tails, Dani was playing at vets. “I am just fascinated by animals. I really, really love them,” she says with feeling, “and if I see a dog in pain I want to do something for it.” She pauses, then laughs delightedly, as if she’s only just remembered the outcome of the May’s exam results. “It’s just crazy to think that now I actually can.”

Find Your Local