Practice makes perfect for ITV1’s leading wildlife expert Steve Leonard…
Paul Dargan meets up with a man for whom lions and leopards are all in a day’s work…
Steve Leonard is the Dr Dolittle of ITV1. The amicable vet and nature lover – who appears as popular with the opposite sex as do perennial favourites such as red-eyed tree frogs and Peruvian long-haired guinea pigs – currently finds himself juggling a media career with the very real task of tending to the needs of poorly animals.
“I think when people see me on television they assume that once the cameras stop rolling I head off for the sunshine, but in reality it’s straight back to the day job!” he tells me. “Thankfully though, time in the veterinary practice is something I love.”
Steve, who counts primates and big cats among his favourite animals, currently works at his brother Tom’s practice in his home town of Whitchurch, Shropshire. The pair are joined there by two other members of the Leonard clan, and all are following in the footsteps of their father, a vet himself.
“It’s a really rewarding profession, but a tough one to get into and, for many, a career that can be difficult to maintain. For whatever reason, there’s a big fall-out in veterinary… a lot of people who qualify before realising they can’t take the stress, the hours and everything else that goes with the job.
Steve says that he doesn’t miss filming when he’s vetting. “But sometimes I need a break because it’s a very high-pressured and stressful job. The results of the day-to-day job are sometimes instantaneous, unlike in television work, where you may spend six months doing something only for it to disappear into a dark room for someone to play around with. By the time it’s actually broadcast you’re already onto your next project, so the gratification comes a lot later…”
Steve’s full-time job, however, is much more immediate, as he explains “…but when you’re a vet, somebody will rush into the practice with a pet and say that it’s injured or dying, or whatever it may be. You then take control of that situation instead of handing it over to somebody else. You see that patient right through – admitting it, doing the blood tests, the x-rays, the surgery, before giving it back to the owner at the end of the procedure. The satisfaction of doing something that they have no chance of doing on their own is amazing.”
Steve’s big break came via the 1996 BBC documentary Vets’ School, when camera crews followed a selection of Bristol University final-year students. Spin-offs Vets In Practice and Vets In The Wild followed, before Steve quit full-time veterinary employment to take on a number of TV presenting roles, the most recent of which is the ITV1 series Animal Kingdom, which aired earlier this summer.
“Filming the series was amazing because we visited the most incredible destinations. Namibia, for instance, is an absolutely gorgeous country. People often associate it with the desert and coastline, and its incredible sand dunes. But inland it has a rich and dense bush that houses a mind-boggling array of species – rhinos, elephants, lions and leopards, right down to the smallest of insects.
Rather than just filming the animals, the series also profiled the people who look after them. “It was a really interesting concept,” says Steve. “I think that’s something that hasn’t really been shown too clearly before in documentaries – the management that goes into looking after wildlife.”
Animal Kingdom certainly discredits any residual belief that wildlife in 2011 is completely wild. And while Steve admits it’s sad that the world’s species aren’t as free to roam as they perhaps once were, he accepts the need to move on and do all that’s possible to protect the species’ welfare.
“There are borders and fences everywhere now. This means that a large number of animals are effectively trapped. In Africa, for instance, elephants used to do great trans-continental migrations. Nowadays, we have to look at their populations, we have to manage how many numbers a particular area can sustain, and do our best to bring back some of the creatures that have been lost.
“There are always going to be management issues, and sometimes the guides out here just have make it up as they go along, because there isn’t a great deal of information on how to do these things. But despite their inexperience, they’re doing an amazing job.”
Steve’s own ongoing task, meanwhile, is to continue combining practical animal care with a media diary that gets busier by the week.
“Television is a very powerful medium and it’s easy to be quite blasé about it. If someone doesn’t like my TV work that’s absolutely fine – everybody is entitled to have an opinion. But if somebody didn’t like my veterinary work, I’d be really upset about that!” he laughs.
“But the great thing about working in television, especially in wildlife, is that you can really send a message – and you can do it in an entertaining way that people enjoy and engage with. I enjoy the fact that you can actually get confirmation from it, you can get animal welfare, and you can get people to think about the environment in a completely different way. That makes all the effort worthwhile.”
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