Honours for Harris: a vet’s story

James Harris and PhilJames Harris knew he wanted to be a vet when he was six years-old, and growing up in the US as a British evacuee during World War ll. He never deviated from this youthful decision, but neither did it stop him from also gaining a degree in anthropology, becoming a professionally trained musician, and pursuing a serious interest in ceramics, along the way to studying veterinary science. He was determined to not be bored.

Harris’s services to the veterinary profession and animal welfare were recognised in this year’s Australia Day awards with a Medal of the Order of Australia, despite having lived and worked in Tasmania for just 11 of the 55 years he has been in practice. Not that he regards veterinary practice as work, since work is an ‘unpleasant activity’, and whatever Harris does he enjoys because for him ‘life is fun’.

His affinity with animals was apparent very early. Whether it was learning to ride horses while still a toddler, being a magnet for stray dogs while walking with his Scottish nanny, or during his regular Sunday visits to Regent Park Zoo, it was soon clear he shared a special relationship with animals. A perk of his parents’ pre-war membership to the London Zoological Society allowed him to befriend any of the animals housed at Regent Park Zoo, but rather than developing a relationship with just one relatively placid wild animal, Harris instead divided his Sunday afternoons between a tiger, a wolf, and a pack of dingoes.

“My father rode regularly and when I was 18-months-old he started me on horses, riding in front of him until I was heavy enough to ride by myself. All the stray dogs in the area would follow me around on walks, and then every Sunday I went to Regent Park Zoo, and into a cage with a Bengal tiger. She’d roll on her back and I’d sit on her chest and scratch her chest and she’d lick my face. I went into the dingoes’ cage with a small tin of sultanas and they’d all sit around while I gave each of them a sultana, and then there was a big Alaskan timber wolf called Remus. He’d come and put his head on my lap while I picked bits out of his mane.”

Meanwhile back at home there was a talkative Australian budgie that Harris’s father brought home one day from Scotland, and that was taught to say ‘joey’ during the long drive back to London. The Harris family ultimately taught Joey to converse with a 500-word vocabulary, good going given the record for a budgie is 640 words.

“All the family taught him weather patterns, so you could ask Joey what the weather was like and he’d look out the window and say it’s misty today, or it’s sunny, or it’s raining.”

On 31 August 1939 a tip-off saw Harris and his American mother sail from Southampton just hours before war was declared, leaving his English father to follow a few years later after being retired from an administrative position in the Royal Air Force.

“My father got a call from one of his friends who worked in the War Office, asking if my mother still had her US passport, because he had booked a cabin on the SS Manhattan which was leaving at 8am the following day. He strongly advised my mother and me get the boat train that night, and be on this ship. My father didn’t ask any questions, he simply told my mother, you have 20 minutes to pack!”

Harris received his doctorate from Michigan State University in 1958 and after several months working in the state service, he opened his own veterinary practice in California where he worked for the next 40 years. His first trip to Australia was the result of a conversation with an Australian colleague at a veterinary conference during the 1990s, when it was suggested he come and lecture at an Australian conference.

“I came here the following year and realised I should have been evacuated to Australia in 1939, rather than the US! After that I came back every year for a conference, and in 2001 my wife Andrea came with me. The conference was in Hobart, but afterwards we hired a car with some friends and drove around the island. We were in Burnie when, at eight o’clock in the morning, my friend Ken knocked on our door and said, put on the television.”

So it was from a motel room on the north-west coast of Tasmania that Harris and Andrea watched the planes flying into the World Trade Centre on September 11, and fears they would not be able to return to the US the following week as planned were confirmed when they learned all flights there had been cancelled indefinitely.

“The next day Ansett Airlines went bankrupt, so we couldn’t even get off the island to go back to Sydney!”

The following weeks were fateful and busy ones for Harris and Andrea, who had fallen in love with Tasmania and declared she would be happy to live there. They bought a house – despite not yet having the necessary visas that would allow them to live in it – as well as the Hobart veterinary practice where he still works. When they could finally return to the US, both their house and the US veterinary practice were put up for sale.

“I sold the practice in a week, and our house in two days. We packed up everything we owned and moved to Australia. We had a business visa, which allowed you to apply for permanent residency. We did this, and then after two years we could apply for citizenship, so now I’m a dutiful citizen of Australia. I think it’s wonderful!”

For Harris veterinary medicine has never been a routine nine-to-five job with time off for weekends and public holidays. For him being a vet is a way of life, and he has always ensured throughout his career that people know he is available to help a sick or injured animal 24-hours a day.

“Veterinary medicine is a way of life – a ministry in the true sense of the word – so I’m a veterinary surgeon 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and I’m available to do what I think is appropriate, and to help people and my colleagues at any time because I think service is man’s most noble activity, and it comes with a doctorate degree.”

He is one of only two vets in Tasmania that specialise in birds, and the only one specialising in reptiles. Over the course of his professional life he has also developed an interest in an aspect of veterinary medicine that is not always given the recognition Harris believes it deserves, that of grief and bereavement. Very early on he adopted a holistic approach to treating animals that involves a greater understanding and appreciation of how animals fit into each family’s dynamic, and how that dynamic can soon unravel if the family pet becomes sick.

“Early in my career I had an epiphany, and realised vets are not just animal doctors, they’re family practitioners. I realised that if an animal is part of a family system, and if that animal has a serious problem, then the job of a veterinarian is not just to treat the pet, the big picture is that in treating the pet you convert what has become a dysfunctional family system back to a functional family system.”

In order to gain a greater understanding of an animal’s position within a family Harris prefers the whole family come to see him when he is treating their pet. In this way he is able to assess who has the primary relationship with the animal, and who will be responsible for paying the bills should it need expensive treatment, or has a terminal condition.

“It’s a very complex dynamic that’s never simple. Do you tell mum how much it will cost because she pays the bills? Or dad, who’s likely to tell you when to kill the dog. Or do you talk to Johnny, because he’s very attached to the animal and at some point he’s going to lose it?

“If you’re clever you have a family conference, and they all come in and sit down, and we all discuss it. So you become a therapist, a family counsellor who facilitates helping the family reach a decision about their pet’s health.”

Harris’s childhood interest in wildlife has continued throughout his career, and at the Hobart property where they now live, he and Andrea have created both a farm, and a wildlife sanctuary that includes half an acre of land he has donated to the Menzies Research Institute in Hobart, to assist the research effort into the facial tumour disease that continues to ravage wild populations of Tasmanian devils. There are also big flights for the release of rehabilitated eagles and birds of prey.

“My wife always wanted a farm so over the last 10 years we’ve increased our flock of alpacas, and also have chooks, geese, turkeys, Indian runner ducks, two Clydesdale horses, a small herd of Scottish Highland cattle, and Wessex saddleback pigs!

“For most of my professional life I’ve treated wildlife in addition to cats and dogs. I believe we’re just one more small cog in the biological wheel of this planet. Tasmania is the roadkill capital of the world. It’s a real tragedy. Unfortunately we’re a very greedy species, and we’re very selfish and destructive, so one of the things I feel very strongly about is trying to overcome and combat the damage our fellow humans do. People often ask who pays me to treat wildlife, to which I respond, God pays me. And she pays me promptly, every month. People then look at me like I’m a little crazy, but that’s alright!”

Harris has also trained vet students for most of his professional life, and they come to his accredited teaching practice from all over the world, boarding at the Harris’s home for between two and four weeks in specially built student accommodation on the property. This giving back to society is part of Harris’s philosophy that to be a vet is a very special privilege, and it comes with a responsibility to contribute and use the skills learned for the benefit and education of all.

“Students come from all over the US and Australia, and from Europe. All they have to do is get to Hobart, then they have a place to stay. They just have to put up with a lot of my philosophy! Some can only stay for two weeks, but I really want them to stay for three or four, for a number of reasons. A lot of these youngsters today who want to to go into veterinary medicine have never been around real animals, and by that I mean livestock. Their experience is limited to having a cat or dog while growing up, so I make them get up at 6am to feed the animals with me.

“Then a lot of medical cases don’t really resolve in two weeks, it takes a good three or four weeks before they resolve and I want them to see the whole cycle. I also want to indoctrinate them into a philosophical approach so they understand the privilege it is to be a vet, in the hope that some will pick up the ball about serving society.”

Harris will officially receive his Australia Day award at a ceremony to be held in Hobart on May 3 but while the medal will not change his way of life, he acknowledges the additional ‘alphabet soup’ after his name may result in a need to change his stationery.


Anne Layton-Bennett  

One Reply to “Honours for Harris: a vet’s story”

  1. Dr. Harris is on my list of one of the most incredible people I have ever met in my life. You could write story books to touch the heart of children and adults on this man. So amazing, such a brilliant and compassionate man.

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