Professor Noel Fitzpatrick with Jersey, a cat recovering from a total hip replacement on his only remaining hind leg
Supervet is giving me the sort of bone-crunching, sternum-splintering hug that he dispenses on television every week.
It is wholehearted, uncompromising and almost unnervingly sincere. I confess to him that I wondered if his hugs were just an (admittedly convincing) telly device.
Supervet, otherwise known as Professor Noel Fitzpatrick – or thebionic vet, or that mad Irishman who bothers to put tiny prosthetic limbs onto pet rabbits – looks ever so slightly disappointed in me.
It’s about time someone made medicine sexy!
“I’m a natural hugger, but I have never come across a journalist that accurately reflected who I am and what I’m about,” he sighs. “I want to see headlines of hope, not cynicism and despair. Every time I see the way a person looks at their dog and the way that dog looks back, I see pure, unconditional love.
“I’m trying to bottle that and give it to a world full of idiots who think the money, ego, power and greed are what matters.”
Gosh. Not a sentiment you’ll have ever heard passing James Herriot’s lips. But times have changed: as there are few things more compelling than passion, I shouldn’t be surprised if all his clients, furry and human alike, aren’t entirely in thrall to Prof Fitzpatrick, 48.
Tall, handsome, fit as a butcher’s dog with a Celtic swathe of black hair, the sheer force of his energetic, evangelistic Bono-meets-Geldof personality sweeps all before him.
Frankly, I’m in disarray after just few minutes, during which time he quotes Irish political poet Patrick Pearse, summons up the indomitable spirits of Freddie Mercury and Dylan Thomas, and tells me he has named his Norfolk terrier Keira – after Keira Knightley.
“If I weren’t a work-obsessed freak and single by choice, she would be my ideal woman,” he says mournfully. “But I was up until 4.30am operating last night, and she’s gone off and married a rock star.”
Keira’s loss, I’d say, because Prof Fitzpatrick is arguably the rock star of the veterinary profession, even if his single-minded dedication means that he often sleeps in a windowless box room off the office in his Surrey orthopaedic hospital, Fitzpatrick Referrals.
Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick CREDIT: LORENZO
“I do have a house,” he says. “I just don’t have the time to go there very often and, besides, it’s mortgaged to the hilt. If I stay at the clinic, then I’m on hand 24/7; I like to stay on top of things because I love, love, love what I do.”
Love is a big thing for Prof Fitzpatrick, a farmer’s boy from County Laois, world-class orthopaedic-neuro veterinary surgeon who also happens to be 24-carat TV gold.
Yes, he’s a technical whizz who can design the sort of Heath Robinson contraptions that transform injured pets back into wagging worktop-surfers.
But it is his trademark kindness, his heartfelt compassion undimmed by many years in practice, that makes three million of us tune in every week.
“I’m feeling a bit vulnerable, a bit raw today,” he says. “I just had to put a dog down, outside in the garden. I always do that, unless it’s raining, so the animal’s last few seconds are spent in sunshine and grass.”
Call me a softie, but that alone sums up the man and his philosophy. With the owners’ permission, the cameras are usually watching.
“It’s important to be respectful but also to show death, failure. I’m not a miracle worker,” he says. The majority of those who come to see him might well disagree.
As the name of his hospital suggests, Fitzpatrick Referrals in Eashing, just outside Godalming, Surrey, is a last-chance saloon for pets whose broken bones cannot be treated at a standard vets’. He also has a specialist oncology unit in Guildford.
Neglected dog who lost paws to frostbite given prostheticsPlay!01:22
“I do my very best for every animal that comes through those doors,” he says. “The value of companion animals is incalculable to us as a species. They don’t judge us, they trust us, they bring out the humanity in us. I don’t do this for fame or applause.”
He’s not dissembling. The reason he has squeezed in an interview with The Telegraph isn’t to talk about his brilliant television career (Supervet is in its seventh series), or to advertise his road shows, but to bang the drum for his charity, the Humanimal Trust.
It’s a campaigning body that aims to overcome “artificial” boundaries between human and animal medicine.
Sharing research and discoveries will enable clinical trials in one discipline to be used by – or at the very least to inform – the other.
Every time I see the way a person looks at their dog and the way that dog looks back, I see pure, unconditional love
“One medicine for all is a co-operative, compassionate, common-sense approach that will dramatically reduce the number of animals used in testing and allow life-enhancing innovations and drugs to reach humans faster.”
To this end, he’s staging One Live, a music festival in Guildford, to raise funds and awareness. The line up includes incontrovertibly hip bands such as Starsailor, Reef, The Feeling and Scouting for Girls.
“It’s about time someone made medicine sexy!” he exclaims. But first things first.
When we meet, he is preparing to go for surgery on his ankle. Rather than simply clearing his diary, he has just crammed six weeks’ worth of operations into several days; hence the 4.30 am finish.
His personal assistant confides that initially the Professor wanted to conduct the surgery himself, anaesthetised from the waist down, but apparently it’s illegal.
Instead, he had a 3D model made of his joint which he will manipulate, mirroring the surgeon (God give him strength) as he tries to gets on with his job.
The Supervet with a happy patient CREDIT: LORENZO AGIUS
“I’m the worst sort of patient,” cries Prof Fitzpatrick. “I’m entirely non-compliant because I think I know best. A human joint isn’t significantly different from an animal joint.”
But the professor is significantly different from a great many other vets. He wears his heart on his sleeve for a start; he kisses his charges on the head, accepts face-lickings with delight and gets tearful with emotion.
He also remembers not just the name of the animal (which is more than a lot of people get in the NHS) but the owner’s name, the name of the owner’s spouse and those of their children.
Of course, his clinic charges thousands for many treatments. Sometimes, the fees are covered by pet insurance policies, surprisingly often they are not. But talk of money makes him visibly exasperated.
“I hate speaking about it and we try not to mention it too often on the programme because it’s just a depressing distraction,” he says with a deep sigh. “I get such terrible hate mail if I treat an particular animal for free – like Spud, a homeless man’s dog – because it’s deemed to be unfairly discriminatory.
“But if I carry out some very complicated procedure and charge a commensurate amount because the prosthetic cost £150,000 to develop, have a staff of 211 people to pay and I’m several million pounds in debt, I’m castigated for that, too.”
It’s never the owners who complain, just the audience at home. But even in this regard Prof Fitzpatrick is at pains to take a generous view.
“People get so het up because they emotionally invest in pets – their own and other people’s – and they care,” he says with an air of resignation. “That’s a good thing.”
He declines to give specifics but says that it’s not unusual for owners to pay over £10,000 for treatment.
I’m feeling a bit vulnerable, a bit raw today. I just had to put a dog down, outside in the garden. I always do that, unless it’s raining, so the animal’s last few seconds are spent in sunshine and grass
“It comes down to choice. Some owners can’t afford the more extensive, state-of-the-art treatment, some can. There’s nothing immoral about them choosing accordingly,” he says. “I advise all my clients of the options available, but I will also tell them outright if I feel it would be wrong to try and prolong the life – and therefore the suffering – of an animal.”
Before television found him, Prof Fitzpatrick spent two decades “writing scientific papers nobody read because they were f------ boring”. He concluded, quite correctly, that people are only interested in science that is demonstrably relevant to their lives.
Television gives him a platform to convey the theoretical in practice and showcase his pioneering techniques of spinal implants, skilfully engineered flanges, screws and internal “speed bumps” to take the pressure off joints.
It also lends him a public profile he is harnessing for the Humanimal Trust.
“I want to make love the global currency,” he says. “It only sounds silly because it’s such a radical, revolutionary idea, but I have real faith that this is the future.”
Faith, hope, charity and a charismatically zealous Irishman at the helm? It’s been a winning formula before. How tremendous to think it could be again.
The One Live festival, in aid of the Humanimal Trust, is on Saturday 4 June at Loseley Park, Guildford (onelivefestival.co.uk). Prof. Noel Fitzpatrick will also be hosting Dog Fest (dog-fest.co.uk) in Cheshire on 18-19 June, and Windsor on 25-26 June