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Emma Milne interviewed

TV VETS are an interesting breed - you either love them or loathe them. In recent years, there's been a virtual explosion of them thanks to programmes such as "Pet Rescue", "Animal Hospital" and, of course "Vets In Practice". The latter programme began life some six years ago as a one-off series called "Vet School', charting the trials and tribulations of a group of final year students. It made unlikely heroes of Norwegian underdog Trude Mostue and handsome hunk Steve Leonard and it proved to be a ratings winner. This led to plans for the follow-up series 'Vets in Practice' featuring the careers of the fledgling vets in their first jobs. One new vet who was, curiously enough, not originally featured in 'Vet School' was Emma Milne, who, together with her fiancé and later husband, Joe Inglis, became one of the regular vet stars.

Ms Milne always had a keen interest in animals as a child and believes that her inspiration to become a vet was the BBC adaptations of James Herriot's stories in 'All Creatures Great and Small'. The young Emma applied to all five veterinary colleges to become a student, but was turned down by them all. Undeterred, she took a voluntary job at a local practice for three months and wrote up notes of every single case she was involved in. She also took jobs on local farms and assisted with lambing and calving, to gain more practical knowledge of larger animals. She then re-applied to the colleges, sending her case notes with her application. She was offered places at both Edinburgh and Bristol colleges, and opted for Bristol... which is when the BBC came into her life.

Emma has since divorced from Joe, their split being made rather public by its coverage on Vets in Practice, although the two remain on good terms. Ms Milne lives and works in Gloucester and has since formed a new relationship with boyfriend Jamie, a computer expert.

Ms Milne has a love of dogs, and owns two Collie crosses, Pan and Badger. However, she has angered canine enthusiasts on many occasions thanks to her outspoken views on pedigree dogs and the world of dog showing, publicly asserting that many breeds suffer from appalling hereditary defects, adding that many dog owners and breeders allow these defects to continue unchecked. Not only have her views been expounded on television and in newspapers, but also on her new website, which has caused further outrage amongst pedigree dog owners.

Ms Milne is also a staunch opponent of foxhunting and has added her voice to those of other celebrities in support of a ban on the sport.

Here, OUR DOGS' Chief Reporter NICK MAYS talks with Emma Milne to discover more about her views...

Nick Mays: Emma, you've recently set yourself up a new website, which seems to get a few thousand 'hits'...

Emma Milne: (Laughs) I seem to get a few thousand bloody questions every week, too!

NM: (Laughs) Are you happy doing that? Do you feel it's like an extension of your TV work in one sense?

EM: The nice thing about it for me is that it gives me the opportunity to reach a lot more people than I can do in general practice. So it's more an educational tool and I may get to the stage where I'm going to have to not answer so many questions because of the sheer time it takes.

NM: So there's no guarantee if someone sends you a question you're going to be answer it?

EM: Well, I am at the moment; I must've done about 150, 200 since I started. But obviously I'm working until seven, then coming home and doing questions until ten, so it's getting a bit tiring.

NM: You've quite a few comments in the press and on your website about pedigree dogs and pedigree dog breeders. Now, where to start? Do you genuinely believe that all pedigree dogs are inherently sick and deformed and that the breeders are perpetrating this almost deliberately?

EM: Errr... no. Thing is, when you say stuff, it is going to be taken out of context to a certain degree or exaggerated. I wanted to be a vet because I love animals and then, I started to realise, as the years and months went by, that a lot of the animals I treat wouldn't necessarily have those problems if they weren't in-bred and I've also seen a lot of clients who've forked out an enormously large amount of money on treatment for their pet and they say things like; "Oh, well, it's a pedigree, I thought it was supposed to be healthy," and "I won't have another pedigree again." I think there's a general misconception that by buying a pedigree animal you're buying a healthy one. I'm not saying they're all unhealthy, what I'm really against is the extremes of breeding, like dogs are no longer dog-shaped - some of them - like your Bulldogs and Basset Hounds and breeds like that.

NM: Would you accept though, Emma, that quite a few of the Breed Clubs and, indeed, the Kennel Club, are taking some very serious steps to address these problems - and have been for quite a few years now - with the genetic health screening and health programmes?

EM: Yes, and obviously the Kennel Club have got quite a lot of those things going on, but the thing is, from my perspective it's all very well to say "Okay, we're going to breed a healthier Bulldog" but you're not going to be able to have a Bulldog that looks like that and be healthy, because they can't even give birth anymore... I know not all breeders are bad. I've had some clients who are breeders and who are lovely, caring people who genuinely care about their dogs. I had a Retriever breeder who used to hip score everything, they were brilliant.

NM: Would you not feel that it would save you a great deal of controversy if you were to publicly acknowledge that there are many Breed Clubs and the Kennel Club that are doing health screening programmes and they are making strides forward to eradicate a lot of the hereditary problems that dogs have had?

EM: I am quite willing to concede that but it's how far it goes. You can say some Bulldog breeders favour the old type of Bulldog which was probably a bit bigger with not such a squashed face, but like Bassets are another breed, they get horrendous skin disease and they're far too long to support their own body weight and that just isn't fair. That breed of dog simply should not be bred like that.

NM: Well, I think the research that's being undertaken is proving some of these points, so possibly, in time, the worse extremes are going to disappear...

EM: Hmmm I think they will. The Kennel Club, yes, I will say, hand on heart, they have got quite a lot of genuinely good health schemes up and running, but the other issues, the tail docking side of it is different; They have now said that undocked dogs are allowed to be shown but I've spoken to so many breeders who have asked me to dock their dogs' tails and have said "Well, everyone knows they won't get looked at by the judge if they're not docked." If the Kennel Club really believed that docking was wrong they'd say like "Right, after 2004, no docked animals are allowed to be shown unless it's a Springer", it would stop instantly, everywhere.

NM: Would I be correct to think that you're in favour of the European Convention for Pet Animals, which, if Britain became a signatory to it, would enforce a further law which would ban docking outright?

EM: Yes, I am I'd want to read everything else that was in it, but I saw something in the paper about it and it would take some stronger steps to reduce some of the genetic breeding problems.

NM: You've also gone on record as saying "If you want a healthy dog, get a crossbreed or a mongrel". Now would you not feel that with crossbreeds and some mongrels you're going to get a double or even triple dose of an inherited genetic defect somewhere along the line? Just because they're mongrels or pedigrees doesn't necessarily follow that they're healthier.

EM: Genetically, if you have a crossbred something, it will a higher chance of being a stronger, healthier animal, it's called hybrid vigour.

NM: Do you necessarily believe that though? Just say for instance, you've got a Labrador/German Shepherd cross, both of these breeds have a tendency towards hip dysplasia, so you'd have a higher risk of hip dysplasia with such a crossbreed?

EM: Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying to people that if you buy a mongrel you're guaranteed not to have any problems. Yet if you're going to cross a pedigree dog with another pedigree dog you could end up with the same pedigree problems, but if you've got a genuinely mixed bred dog, over several generations, that is much more likely to be a healthy animal than a pedigree German Shepherd.

NM: What about the point of view that you're more likely to see pedigree dogs with problems because their owners have paid a lot for them or because their breeders have invested more time, money and love into breeding these dogs than you see in mongrels and crossbreeds? I'm not saying the owners of mongrels and crossbreeds love their dogs any the less, but if they are suffering from various problems, then maybe the owners of dogs which are more cheaply obtained, or come from a rescue centre are less likely to bring the animal to the vet. Is this a fair point?

EM: I completely disagree with that. I think that's quite an outrageous thing to say, actually. The thing is, if someone owns a dog, then that dog is the most valuable thing to them. I paid thirty quid for mine, but they are the most valuable things in my entire life, I would do anything for them and I know the vast majority of my clients who own non-pedigree animals worship the ground they walk on.

NM: Obviously you and those clients who bring their animals for treatment do care, but I live in an area where there's a lot of crossbreed dogs around, people pick them up from anywhere - like they bought a puppy from a bloke in the pub. I myself have taken on a rescue this year, a puppy from an accidental litter from a crossbred bitch that was mated because she roams the streets as a 'latchkey' dog.

EM: Okay, well, everywhere you go you're going to find people who won't take responsibility for their animals, but you're possibly talking about people who have a lot less money or are less better educated than others, but I have been called out to see a person with a pedigree Rottweiler which had sustained an injury whilst out walking, but when I saw it I picked up the fact that at five months it had horrible hip dysplasia, and the owner didn't want to know. So you're going to get good and bad in crossbreed and pedigree dog owners wherever you go.

NM: Well can you see then that there are quite a few caring pedigree dog owners, breeders and exhibitors out there who are aggrieved by your comments that they "drag their dogs round the show ring" or "shampoo them four times a day"? I mean, my God, if they shampooed the dog four times a day all its fur would fall out! Do you not feel that making extreme remarks like that isn't getting responsible dog people on your side, getting out there and passing on the message to those people who really need to hear it?

EM: Well, the article, which came out in the Mail On Sunday, was very strongly worded. I knew I was going to annoy a lot of people, but sometimes you need to be aggressive to start with to make people sit up and take notice. And I like the fact that I got a reaction to it. If I'd said like me "Oh well, some pedigrees are a little bit unhealthy and you can get a few problems", everyone would go "Yeah, that is true", but it won't make any impact on the people you need to educate. You have to talk about the extremes. I'm currently writing a book that is going to be very fair, very scientifically based, but it is going to be educational. I just want to make sure that if someone's going to buy a Boxer or similar breed that they realise beforehand some of the problems they're likely to encounter.

NM: Well, in that case, would you refer them to the appropriate Breed Club and to seek out a responsible breeder?

EM: Yes certainly, but the thing is, there's tons and tons of literature around, like the Ultimate Dog Book and dog breed books, all about what dogs want but in general will be very positive and won't say about any of the downside. You won't buy a book about Westies which says they're really prone to multiple allergies and you're likely to spend the rest of the Westie's life forking out for medication.

NM: In the book you're writing, Emma, will you be referring to any dog breeders at all during the course of your research?

EM: There's going to be various amounts of sections, there's going to be other things besides that. I think what I'll do from the point of view of the animals is to do it by conformation, i.e. types of dog, rather than specific breeds. But I will be researching it with the Royal Veterinary College and Breed Clubs to a degree, but I'm more interested in the professional side of it, because there's obviously more documented information on the sort of problems that the dog breeds have.

NM: True, but then again if you've got the Kennel Club that are working in co-operation with the Animal Health Trust, then surely they would be an invaluable source of reference for your book? If they've got these programmes going on whereby they're trying to eradicate these problems and they're using vets in the research, then you should for fairness' sake, if nothing else, speak to them?

EM: The Animal Health Trust is great...

NM: This is what polarises a lot of people. They feel you have got this disregard for anything to do with pedigree dogs or organisations that support them. So if the Kennel Club has got this programme going with the AHT and the BVA, let's not forget, then surely, in your book, you should at least mention this?

EM: What, mention that they're doing health screening and stuff?

NM: Yes, and get information from them about the successes they have had.

EM: Yeah, if there's... I know what you're trying to say; but I'm not necessarily sure it fits in with what I'm trying to say. I'm not going to say: "Right, I'm going to write an educational book about problem solving and these sort of things and, just to please someone, say Oh, and by the way, the Kennel Club do this."

NM: Not a case of "pleasing someone" Emma, more a case of giving your readers as much good information as you can give them.

EM: Sure, and also, if when I'm going to advise people what to look for in a dog, there's all the other things to think about too, like how much exercise it needs, how expensive it is, what sort of time it's going to consume out of your day and so on, and when they've decided what sort of dog they want there will be information about contacting the Kennel Club to find out who the good breeders are, the ones who are accredited and do the hip scoring and eye testing. Yes, that will certainly be there.

NM: I won't labour the point any more, but with a massive programme that's been in operation since 1997 and has got at least a ten, twenty year lifespan to it, and which is already having some good successes, then surely the omission of this from your book is going to be letting your readers down?

EM: (Pause) No, it won't be omitted, I'm going to say that the Kennel Club are a good source of information and certainly if someone is going to buy a pedigree, then the best place to find out information about it is the Kennel Club. It goes without saying, it's obvious. But I want people to be aware of the problems they may encounter if they buy a pedigree dog.

NM: Does it bother you that people might not necessarily like you for the opinions you hold?

EM: When I did Question Time, I got quite a few nasty letters, but I also got a load of very supportive letters and since I've done the thing about the pedigrees, I've had a wealth of support which is really nice. Obviously, I'm not trying to alienate clients or people who own pedigree dogs, all I want to do, is make the facts known. You're always going to get people who don't like you, for whatever reason, but I've found comfort in the fact that so many people agree with me which does make me think that I can't be entirely wrong about everything I've said.

NM: What about the argument that some people might say, we go to a vet or a doctor for their medical knowledge and expertise, not for their moral pontifications?

EM: I think it's up to everyone. I've got a lot of clients who obviously think I'm a very good vet and the thing that stands in my favour is that I do genuinely care about people's animals. I'm not going to refuse to treat pedigrees, as one woman said to me, my job is to safeguard the welfare of animals, that's the oath I took and that's what I'm going to do. It's not the animal's fault they've ended up the way they are. I've got people who come to me because they think I'm a good vet, even if they don't agree with what I say, just as I have people who come to me because they do agree with what I say.

NM: Do you feel you'll go on making your outspoken comments and looking for animal welfare issues? Is this part and parcel of the way you are?

EM: The way I see it is I have been very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to be in the public eye and if I didn't use it to the best of my ability, then I'd have wasted that opportunity. I don't want to be on telly just to go to celebrity parties and get my name in the paper. That isn't why I've said the things I've said, I've said them because that's what I believe and I want people to know

NM: So you've been given a platform which you'd not have had if you'd been in an earlier or later year at Vet School and missed the BBC filming. So you're using your good fortune to help people?

EM: Yes, although I know lots of people don't like the things I say, I just don't want to waste the opportunity to reach more people than I would on an everyday level.

NM: So no-one's going to gag you?

EM: (Laughs) No, although they might try! I'm not just trying to be outrageous, to a degree you have to be a little bit provocative to get people to listen to you, so the things I say, not matter how exaggeratedly they become when they're published. I just want people to see what I have to see on a day-to-day basis and I just want to get to the point where I don't have to see docked Dobermanns and Rottweilers and that sort of thing. If I can have a hand in that, then I'll have done a good job.

NM: Just one hypothetical question here: If say, as a result of this interview, the kennel Club were to turn round and say to you, "Well, you've made some fair points, we'd like to enter into a dialogue with you on various things; you've got a good position where you can get the message out to the public". Would you be amenable to talking to them?

EM: Yeah, I'd be more than happy to talk to them.

NM: You've been to Crufts once, haven't you? Would you go again? EM: Nope. I got asked to go the following year, but I didn't go.

NM: What if you were invited as an honoured guest, to have a look round?

EM: But I've already had a look round. I got really angry when I was there. And I know people say it's not so bad. I had an e-mail from one woman who said Crufts is excellent for giving young people enthusiasm about team events and gets them doing stuff. And I know there's a lot of things there like Guide Dogs for the Blind and Dogs for the Disabled, all very, very commendable, but... I just don't agree with those extremes of breeding and when you go to Crufts they're everywhere and that's why I got angry.

NM: But surely if you're trying to educate people you've got to swallow your anger. Let's put it this way, you've got people who are aid workers, they go overseas to places where's there's famine, poverty and the like and it angers them, but they still have to be there to do something about it.

EM: But if I go to Crufts it's not really like going to somewhere to help poverty is it? I'm not going to Crufts and start to liberate all the dogs and get on a soapbox and start preaching about the horrors of pedigree breeding. If I go to Crufts I'm just going to look at it and know what's going on. It's much better to deal with that from the outside.

NM: Okay, but using that same argument, would you not feel that getting a dialogue going with the very people with whom the problem rests would be a positive thing?

EM: Yeah, but I don't see how going to Crufts would achieve that unless I went around all day talking to breeders who are there specifically to show their animals, that's not really the time to do it. I'm quite happy to have a dialogue with the Kennel Club if they see the way that's going. If they want to use my public face to make their points known, such as how the health schemes are going, then I'm quite happy to do that.

NM: Changing the subject slightly, you also have very strong views on foxhunting.

EM: Uh-huh...

NM: And of course there's the very famous naked pose of you, a la Christine Keeler, as part of a Celebrities Against Foxhunting calendar. Do you think that helped get the message across to ban foxhunting?

EM: Well, it never was a calendar; it was just an article for a Sunday newspaper as part of their campaign.

NM: Was it fun to do?

EM: It was just a one-off really. They were looking for some support and it was just a fun way of doing it.

NM: Was this for the League Against Cruel Sports?

EM: It was just the newspaper themselves; they do a lot of work with the RSPCA.

NM: Now you went on the BBC's 'Question Time' programme, quite famously, about hunting. You came under fire quite a lot on the programme and after it. Do you feel there's any justification for foxhunting? Do you accept any of the arguments put forward in its defence that it is a conservation measure in some respects?

EM: Not really, no. I've read the Burns Report and I think all of their arguments are flawed. Yes, hunts do a lot for the countryside, they help farmers out, they take carcasses, they do have an enormous role to play in rural communities, but I don't think that's justification for carrying on something like that. It makes me really angry when they say things like "Oh, we have to keep the fox numbers down because they're vermin, they kill chickens" and this and that, and then you find out they're encouraging foxes to breed by feeding them, so they can hunt them. Surely that is completely barmy?

NM: Is this true of all hunts?

EM: No, it isn't, but it goes on. I can't see how hunting and killing one fox in a day is a very efficient way of keeping the numbers down.

NM: Using that same argument then, why should it bother you so much if you've people who dress up in hunting pink once or twice a month for part of the year and go out and maybe kill one fox in a day. Is that really something to get in such lather about when there are other, far more serious animal welfare problems going on in the country at large?

EM: But you can't say that. For that one animal it's still an unnecessary and unacceptable amount of stress - just the same with stag hunting. You can't just say "Oh it doesn't matter, it's only the one." It's like racism, "Oh well, it's all right if you kill the odd black person" or if you hang the odd wrong person if you brought back capital punishment. It still makes an enormous difference to that one individual.

NM: A good argument. Do you think foxhunting ever will be banned?

EM: I'd like to think so, if it doesn't keep getting bogged down in the Lords.

NM: Well, it did get bogged down in the Lords last time, but it's been lost twice due to running out of Parliamentary time.

EM: There's a lot of politics involved with it.

NM: Do you feel the Government is genuinely committed to banning hunting with hounds?

EM: I don't really know enough about the politics of it really... I'd like to think it would be banned. It's been banned successfully in other countries without a massive impact on jobs in the countryside. The big issue with it is the number of people it employs.

NM: If hunting is banned, and other methods of culling are used which many people feel are crueller, do you feel that the fox population will explode and there will be more problems?

EM: In the Burns report they looked into all the aspects of what would happen and other methods of fox control, so yes, I'm not saying they should start snaring or trapping them, because obviously that has got serious welfare issues of its own. But it has been done in other places without enormous problems, like shooting. If you've got people who are properly trained to shoot stags and foxes that is a much more acceptable way of culling.

NM: Do you feel with your opposition to hunting, or to dog breeding that you're hitting easy targets? What about a more financially and politically powerful group that's association with animal welfare problems, such as dairy producers, or there's the de-beaking of battery poultry, castrating of bullocks and pigs without anaesthetic, the docking of newborn lambs... would you ever speak out on those issues?

EM: Oh yes, definitely. There's a wealth of things, but I have to start somewhere. The reason the pedigree stuff came first is because I see it day to day, I see it all the time. But I spent two weeks on a Dairy Farm and it was one of the most disgusting places I have ever seen. The welfare was appalling. About twenty five per cent of the herd was lame, there was a cow that was unfit for transportation and was stuck in a shed and was covered in sores. There was a cow which the farmer thought had BSE, but it had a calf in it, so he was going to keep putting her milk in the bulk tank. This was when I was at University and I was placed there. It was the worst two weeks I had ever spent.

NM: Do you think you might ever speak out on those farming animal welfare issues?

EM: I'm quite happy to support any of those issues. There's many that you can get involved in, but it all takes time. You've got to start somewhere.

NM: So when you've sorted out dog breeders and the foxhunting issue, can we then look forward to seeing you speaking out on farming practices?

EM: Yes. I'm not a vegetarian, but I only eat free-range meat and there's a company called The Real Meat Company that is very big on animal welfare. It's a real problem and I do care.

NM: In closing, Emma, what do you like to do to relax? What's your idea of a fun time?

EM: I do watch a lot of films, a lot of videos... sad really, I know. I like escapism, action, and comedy. I like walking my dogs when it's nice weather, it relaxes me, and they're always funny to watch, always make me smile. And I play pool once a week for a local pub.

NM: Any good?

EM: Not bad... for a bird I suppose (Laughs).

NM: (Laughs) Is that the sort of comment you get?

EM: Well, I went to play in quite a ropey pub last week and I beat a bloke first off and he later made a comment that they didn't let girls onto their pool team because it was supposed to be a lads' night out, so that went down really well. Then I beat the landlord, so the rest of the team were ripping them about that. (Laughs) It works in my favour, because blokes either underestimate you and don't play to the best of their ability, or they get really worried and they play worse than they would anyway.

NM: Do you go clubbing with the girls?

EM: No. I'm not really into girlie nights out. I'd much rather go to a pub and have a few pints and play pool than giggle all night round my handbag. I'm not a very girlie girl, I'd much rather have a night out with lads, and the girls I do socialise with are the same sort of people.

NM: Were you a tomboy as a kid?

EM: Yeah, always climbing trees and getting into scrapes. I spent most of my childhood in casualty.

NM: Well, you survived and you're still with us and I'm sure we'll see you around on TV for quite a while yet. Emma Milne, thank you very much.

EM: Thank you.