By Lillian Simmons
SPECIAL TO THE TELEGRAM
Andrew Peacock was there the day scientist Jon Lien, founder of the Whale Research Group at Memorial University, did the world’s first-ever EKG on a whale in the ocean.
“(Lien) was always up to interesting things so he convinced some guys from Texas to get him a one-lead EKG machine,” explains Peacock, a retired provincial veterinarian who has recently written a book about his experiences.
That particular day (in 1990) Lien was in the Conception Bay area and asked Peacock if he wanted to go along on the whale trip.
“We got out there and there was this whale caught in a net. When he came up for air we put on this suction cup with the lead from the EKG. We had a 150-foot lead in the boat and watched his heart. What makes it interesting and challenging is that nobody knows very much about whales. When you get a tracing off an EKG from a whale, obviously it’s the first time, so you have no idea whether it’s normal or not. You can’t say this is a normal whale, because this is a whale caught in a net.”
Lien put on a diving mask and when the whale came up, the scientist leaned over the side to look the creature in the eye.
“And it seemed to calm down, you know, there was some kind of communication, or it seemed that way.”
But in all the excitement, Lien accidentally kicked a knife into the side of the Zodiac, deflating half the boat.
“And if you met Jon, that’s right in character with him, he got very excited about things. That’s the funny part of it. The whale is fascinating, but it doesn’t move you as a person the same way a human does. And the idea of him putting his head down and looking into the whale’s eye, there’s something about that interaction between the person and the whale. ...
“One of the things I learned really fast when I started writing is that my stories aren’t really about animals, they’re about people.”
As a provincial vet, Peacock’s territory encompassed half the Avalon. Because the distance complicated sharing the work with a St. John’s vet, he worked alone, on call
24 hours a day, seven days a week, for close to 28 years.
In addition he kept a private clinic across the road from his house in Freshwater (Carbonear) where he’d attend to cats and dogs at night.
“It’s kind of an unusual practice,” he says a little understatedly.
There are many who would agree. “You should write a book!” was a refrain he’d heard countless times during the course of his career.
“I always thought I would,” he says. “I wrote a few stories while I was practising.”
And he has plenty. Like the one about the polar bear that attended a Southern Shore bingo game before it crashed through a couple’s living room window; or attending to the inelegant job of castrating a
600 pound boar; dealing with a lynx that awakened before the surgery was completed; working at a prison dairy farm and transporting a moose calf back to the wild in the front seat of his vehicle.
By the time he retired a couple of years ago, he’d collected more than a hundred stories.
According to Peacock there’s never been a book of this type written about the actual practice of veterinary medicine in the province.
“In the rest of Canada and in the United States and Britain a lot of people have written vet books. But a lot of the books that I see from other vets are just the retelling of clinical tales.
Peacock believes there are two things required to write a good book. One of them is a good story, and there’s no question he has an abundant supply. The other requirement is the ability to be a good writer. And like most writers, he hovers back and forth between humble and hopeful.
“When I was a vet and I delivered a calf nobody ever said to me: ‘Do you call that a calf? That’s not a very good calf!’ He laughs. “You know, you either did it or you didn’t.”
Peacock was pushed into writing while attending a reading by an internationally well-known author, where he won a copy of the author’s book. They got to chatting and the writer asked to see some of his work.
“And I said, ‘no, I don’t tell people that I write and I don’t show people my writing.’ I was told, if you think you’re going to write, you should tell everybody that you’re writing and you should show it to everybody. You shouldn’t be afraid of that.”
So Peacock promised to submit some of his work in exchange for blunt honesty.
“And I got back a response saying, ‘You really know how to write; this is very good.”
After that encounter, feeling more confident, Peacock set aside four hours each day to write. About seven months later, the hefty 100,000-word manuscript, An Eastern Practice (working title), was completed.
“And there’s lots more,” he grins.
“I get the impression from people who have read it, they seem to think it’s pretty good.”
Peacock moved to Newfoundland from Ontario in 1982.
“When my wife and I came here, we came with a definite plan that we were going to be here for two years. And that didn’t work. I just love it here. What’s not to love? Just look out the window!” he says with a glance towards the ocean.
“And then the people are every bit as good as that, absolutely lovely!”
“An Eastern Practice” starts out pretty much in 1982, with a story about the new mainland vet who encounters a few snags, particularly with dialect, which makes for some amusing situations.
“He doesn’t understand the language, the customs and is trying to fit in and figure out what’s going on,” says Peacock, explaining “People would phone me up and they’d give me instructions on how to find their place. And if I knew what town it was, I was lucky.”
He remembers having some doubts when he first started practising in rural Newfoundland. Here he was in Point Lance treating one cow that was worth $50, while his classmates were looking at $100,000 cows on million-dollar dairy farms. He wondered if he might be wasting his time.
“Then you think, no, when it comes down to real human value that you’re giving, I may be doing more good with this $50 cow than they’re doing with the $100,000 cows.”
During his earlier days as a vet, the Cape Shore was fairly remote territory. When he’d arrive there, teenagers would gather round to watch him work and ask questions.
“There was no uppity-ness or anything like that. There was just absolute interest in what you were doing. It was so wonderful.
“You like to think you’re doing something that’s going to help people and you hope people appreciate what you do. I found, in the case like the Cape Shore you knew they appreciated your help.”
Some of the teenagers went on to become vets and Peacock includes several stories about students in his book.
The small towns, the colourful characters, the dialects — Peacock acknowledges the obvious model for his book is British veterinary surgeon and author, James Herriot.
“He sold like over 50 million books. I think he was a fabulous writer and an amazing guy. He started writing when he was 50 and he wrote his stories on a typewriter in front of the television, with his wife and kids running around. Just amazing.”
And like Herriot, Peacock says, his stories are “true” and “complete lies” at the same time.
“I changed people’s names. Sometimes I’ll use one day, for two things that happened on completely different days, but they fit together as a story. Or somebody says something in a barn but it wasn’t said at that call, it was said at another call.”
His manuscript is currently at a publishing house in England.
“They’re reading my book now …it could be months,” he says. “And, there may be nothing come from it. It’s just one of those things where you have to have patience.”