by Chris Tobin
Retired Timaru veterinarian Vince Peterson (79) had a tough introduction to his profession.
Freshly graduated from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science, he ventured to the South Island’s West Coast for his first job. There he became sole vet and responsible for a vast territory stretching from Paringa in the south to Seddonville in the north, a 240km stretch encompassing main centres Greymouth and Hokitika.
“I learnt an awful lot. I grew up there,” Mr Peterson said.
He was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to the veterinary industry.
“When I got to the West Coast in January 1964, there were two others [vets] and one in Reefton. Both left in February that year.”
With one month’s experience as a practising vet he was “it’ for the West Coast – a situation that would last more than three years.
“One thing I learnt about the Coast was, it didn’t matter what your personal things were – your religion, your colour – they just judged you on what you did and how good you did it. They had a totally different attitude compared to Canterbury, which is stratified.”
He thought the attitude dated back to the gold rush era, when people were required to be more self-sufficient.
Working on the Coast meant he could be called out at any hour of the day or night. Mr Peterson said he could write a book on his experiences.
“It was mostly dairying and totally different to what it is now. The farmers all milked their own cows, there was no staff or sharemilkers and the average size of a herd was 80 to 100 cows.”
It was a steep learning curve.
“The thing is, you come out of university with a degree but you don’t know anything about people, the farmers, and what to do in a practical sense.
“It was all a big roller-coaster ride – you had to teach yourself on the job. It was an interesting time.”
He recalled one occasion when he received a call from a farmer near Murchison who had a cow struggling in calving. He had been busy in Hokitika and told the farmer he would arrive that evening.
“I turned up at midnight and it had been a 12 to 15-hour wait.”
He managed to pull out a “beautiful little Jersey calf” alive, which delighted him as he thought it would be dead, but the farmer was not impressed.
As he cleaned up his gear the farmer remarked: “It’s a bloody awful service you provide here.”
After 13 years on the Coast, by which time the number of vets there had increased to up to 10 for a time, his first marriage broke up. He left to open a clinic in Geraldine – Aorangi Veterinary Services – working with Dave Walker and his wife Priscilla, and married Robin.
“Geraldine was totally different. On the Coast I knew every farmer and they had to use our service.
“In Geraldine, it was mainly sheep and beef and they don’t use vets as dairy farmers do. On the Coast the phone went and you went,” Mr Peterson said.
He took over the management of the practice in the 1980s. When Mr Walker became Timaru mayor in 1986, Mr Peterson shifted to Timaru and took over running Aorangi Veterinary Services from there.
In 1990, he was sued by a client and although he was exonerated by the judge, the late Ed Ryan, it was a traumatic experience, Mr Peterson said.
The case led to his involvement with the Veterinary Professional Insurance Society (VPIS). In 1994, he joined the board, serving as chairman from 1998 to 2016 and he was still active in the society.
“It’s an insurance scheme that, in the main, provides professional indemnity insurance to veterinary practices. It’s a membership scheme.
“So if a vet makes a mistake and ends up with a disgruntled client – there is a whole range – if they (the vet) make a claim to the society, we take over running of the claim.
“The aim is to seek resolution, to have a happy client and vet accepting the fact something can go wrong or allegedly go wrong.
“The only way to resolve things is to try and pull back to where the mistake was made.
“On some occasions we’ve replaced the animal with another; sometimes, we defend it if we’ve done nothing wrong. It’s an intricate business.”
Mr Peterson retired from clinical work in 2001. He said the public did not fully comprehend the pressures on vets, who, like any professionals, did their best.
“When things suddenly go wrong – in an instant – it’s one thing vets are not trained for. Suddenly, they’re all at sea, fearing they could be struck off.
“A lot of the work the board does is pastoral care – we try to get it all in perspective.”
Young vets straight out of university, as he had been on the West Coast, had enormous pressures on them in the first three years, and statistics showed the rate of suicide was high, he said.
“The important thing is to get them through the first three years, to get enough experience to deal with the s… that inevitably happens.”
The difference between the present and when he started out on the Coast was that back then no-one thought of suing a vet.
Veterinary practice was not just about “dealing with animals”, Mr Peterson said.
“It’s about dealing with people and that’s what makes it all the things it can be – interesting, fascinating, frustrating – a whole gamut of things.”