Mind Over Miller: Kicked? Bitten? Scratched? What a great job!


Mind Over Miller: Kicked? Bitten? Scratched? What a great job!

Nov 01, 2006

When I moved to the Conejo Valley in California's Ventura County in 1957, the valley had never had a resident veterinary practitioner. Back then, the human population was small, limiting the number of available small-animal patients. However, there were thousands of beef cattle and horses in the area and, intriguingly, an abundance of exotic animals. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to the area was the captive exotic-animal population.

In the valley, there was an elephant-training center, a camel-breeding facility, and several small wild-animal ranches. There were businesses devoted to the trade of exotic birds and mammals. And on Main Street in Thousand Oaks was Jungleland, a wild-animal training facility and the headquarters for circus, television, and motion picture animals. All of this was because Ventura County's animal regulations were far more lenient than those in adjacent Los Angeles County.

Since 1957, the Conejo Valley's human population has increased a hundredfold. The wild-animal industry is no longer on Main Street, but it still exists around us. In the canyon where I live, there are three separate facilities with snakes, crocodiles, wolves, and all sorts of other animals—even elephants—used periodically in television shows or movies. Ten miles north of Thousand Oaks is the town of Moorpark, home to Moorpark College. Moorpark College is an ordinary local school except for one thing: It has the only hands-on exotic-animal training program at an institution of higher learning in the world. The program is the Exotic Animal Training and Management (EATM) program, and its graduates work at animal-training facilities worldwide.

When the EATM program was established, our practice provided its veterinary services, and we veterinarians periodically lectured at the school. Eventually, after I retired from the practice, one of my partners, Dr. Jim Peddie, left the practice to become a faculty member and the EATM program's full-time resident veterinarian. In time, he was appointed director of the program, a position he held until he retired this year.

After spending a year at the school researching it, journalist Amy Sutherland has recently written a book about the EATM program. Her book, Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers, will elicit envy in a minority of readers. Readers who were born to work with animals will wish they had studied at the EATM program at Moorpark College. Or if the reader is young or energetic enough, the book may motivate him or her to apply there.

On the other hand, most readers will probably be repulsed by what the students must endure: the endless hours of work, the injuries the animals inflict, the constant involvement with excrement and other physiologic byproducts, and the pathetically low salaries received after graduation.

Sound familiar?

We in the veterinary profession will identify with the animal trainers and the above-listed unattractive lifestyle. But most of us love our lives. Whether we are animal doctors or animal trainers, we are happy people who are grateful for lives that allow us to be deeply involved with other species and give us a fuller understanding of our own species.

Dr. Robert M. Miller
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at http://www.robertmmiller.com/.