Wednesday 21 February 2018

Noel Fitzpatrick's journey from... Supervet to superstar!

He's a pioneer of cutting-edge surgery for animals and the star of Channel 4's The Supervet. Here, Laois man Noel Fitzpatrick tells how he fused love and science to become 'the Freddie Mercury of dogs'

Supervert star Noel Fitzpatrick - the Freddie Mercury of dogs
Supervert star Noel Fitzpatrick - the Freddie Mercury of dogs
Vet Noel Fitzpatrick with Oscar the cat, who was given two prosthetic paws in 2011

Deirdre Finnerty

If Noel Fitzpatrick hadn't become The Supervet, chances are he would have become a superstar. The Laois man is best known for the Channel 4 series in which he performs pioneering surgery on ill and injured animals, but when we speak it's a decidedly different subject that has him excited.

"I love going to rock concerts," Noel enthuses. "When I saw Freddie Mercury at Slane Castle it was a transcendent experience. Freddie just held you in his hand.

"I listen to a group called Bastille. I listen to Hurts. I'm a die-hard U2 fan. I'd listen to U2 opening an envelope. I'm going to every U2 concert in the UK this year. They have a rare magic. They charted my life and allowed me to access a part of my soul.

"I don't go on holiday and I don't take weekends off so a few hours away at a gig is all I need. I love dance, music and theatre. When you work 16-hour days, you need something to free the mind. If I didn't have that I'd go insane. I'd be an alcoholic by now."

Now, Noel intends to combine his two major passions in life - revealing for the first time that he is working on putting together a music festival in aid of his charity, The Humanimal Trust, this summer.

"I believe greatly in using entertainment to educate. It should all be one experience. It sets the mind free," he says, adding that the plan is to hold: "One live music festival in the summer in Surrey University. It will change the way we think about animals."

Certainly, Noel himself takes a different approach to animals than the vast majority of people. At the core of his charity, and, indeed, of Fitzpatrick Referrals - the veterinary hospital he founded in the UK - is the belief that the healthcare of humans and animals can be simultaneously advanced.

The practice's website includes stories of dogs such as Ira, a one-year-old Labrador who had rods fitted to fix a genetic spinal condition, and Chief, a Northern Inuit who had a hip replacement.

"The reason I do this is because of the bond of love between a child and his rabbit, a young couple and their cat. It frustrated me that animals were used to develop modern medical care but human medicine never came back to help animals," Noel says of founding his business.

Animal welfare has been a passion of Noel's since his early years growing up on a farm in Ballyfin, Co. Laois. "I had a natural gravitation in my formative years," he says. "There were a few incidents. I remember vividly losing a lamb on a frosty night when I was 11. I was on the nightshift looking after the sheep, it was about 2am and I discovered a ewe lambing in the drain below the waterlevel. I delivered the first lamb and it was already dead. I delivered the second one and was running through the field with it when it took its last breath.

"I felt helpless. Like I wasn't strong enough, not clever enough. I remember vividly, lying in the frosty field, looking at the bright stars and I felt 'The universe is so big, I'm just a tiny speck here, can I make a difference?'"

Driven to try and make that difference, Noel studied veterinary surgery at UCD and went on to do a number of working scholarships in America before returning home to work as a farmyard vet. However, he was more interested in working on small animals and eventually moved to England to pursue a career with dogs and cats. "Rural Ireland was different then and it was hard for my family to understand why I wanted to do what I do. It was different to stray from large animal veterinary."

In 2005, he set up Fitzpatrick Referrals, a neuro-orthopaedic facility in Surrey that today employs more than 140 people. There, he has stepped away from traditional veterinary medicine, creating bionic limbs for animals and performing surgeries designed for humans. His radical approach to his job soon attracted the interest of Channel 4, and The Supervet TV series was born.

Compelling, and often emotional viewing, it shows in graphic detail the highs and lows of life at the futuristic practice.

"We wanted to create a show about love and science, I wanted to make it realistic so that we're brought on the journey with the animal," Noel says. "I had to force producers to keep in the euthanasia scenes. The show has to be realistic."

Given the nature of his work, Noel has faced stiff criticism from those who believe that using prosthetics and bionic limbs on animals is unnatural and even cruel. Can he understand that point of view - is he a surgeon with a God complex?

He bristles. "It's easy to throw stones, especially at the one who sticks his head above ground first. The moral truth is that we need to respect animals. I would say to anyone who questions the moral implications of what I do - look inside your own soul and ask yourself this moral question. Would you want a cure if your child had cancer? Why should it become a moral issue because it's a dog?" But what about the price tag that comes with his services? Some of the operations he performs on dogs can cost as much as €6,000 - can pet owners reasonably be expected to fork out such substantial sums?

"There's constantly compromise," Noel says. "The naysayers will say I do this for the money but I'm not interested in money. Why would I sleep in a student room adjoined to my clinic every night if I was interested in money? If Mary wants to spend four grand on the treatment of a family member versus a holiday abroad, does society have the right to say she can't do that? There are some people who genuinely can't afford the treatments and in those cases we do our best to compromise for the animal."

Of course, on the opposite end of the scale there are the dog fanatics who spare no expense on the pooches they carry around in designer handbags. Does he find that kind of behaviour annoying or endearing?

"It's not my bag. I'm still a farmer's boy but as long as there's no cruelty involved I have no issue. I think most people who treat their animals like that care for them and love them very much." Speaking of love, there is understandably much interest from animal-mad viewers in Noel's romantic life - or lack thereof. Fans of the handsome 40-something will no doubt swoon to hear him describe himself as a romantic (although perhaps less so to hear that any woman would have to be happy to come second to animals in his life).

"I am attracted to artistic people who allow their minds to think differently," he says. "I'm endlessly a romantic. I believe in the purity of love, love that's not conditional, I don't believe in trying to change a person." A gruelling regimen of long days at the surgery in the past decade has meant he hasn't had the time or inclination to find 'the one' but that hasn't stopped potential suitors from trying to get his attention. Does anything, ahem, lacy ever arrive in the post?

"I do get some interesting things from people of the female variety and my staff get a good giggle out of it sometimes," Noel reveals reluctantly. "But the most valuable post I get is from kids - kids that say we've helped them enormously. We had six kids here last week for a drawing competition and they left here changed. We talked about the meaning of life. I would like to have kids, but I would have to make some changes beforehand."

Noel, who has studied acting and had walk-on parts in a number of TV shows, is the first to admit that he can be dramatic ("It's no coincidence that the same word 'theatre' is used. I go into theatre with a written page in my head," he says). However, he plays down any mention of his personal fame. "Fame in men's mouths is nonsense," he says. "You don't succeed every day. There are losses every week. It makes you humble."

An alumni award he was presented with by UCD last year is kept in its blue velvet box by his mother. He modestly describes it as "an award for being OK". "I'm still a speck in the universe but I want to do everything in my power to get the message across. This is why I do what I do."

Would he say that his was a selfless job? "Not really, I'm fulfilling my dream."

And as for his other dream, while his fundraising musical event is coming together, the superstar supervet will be the headline act at another festival this June. Happening at two UK locations, Dogfest is a fun day out for dogs that includes everything from games and pampering zones to the Great Dog Walk.

"Dogfest - 10,000 dogs in a field," Noel says. "People bring their dogs for a five-mile walk. It's what I'd want to do if I were a dog. It is like an army of dogs. When I get to the top of the hill and turn around I feel like the Freddie Mercury of dogs."

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