Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet
Trude Mostue is a TV veteran and her CV is impressive. But as she says, going into the wild, is more often than not about technical hitches rather than animal magic.
Taking an exam is hard enough, studying for it while under the non-blinking eye of a TV camera must be a nightmare – but then the trick is acting as if the camera is not there.
Trude Mostue managed that through 111 episodes of Vet School – she was a natural.
So natural that after Vet School came Vets in Practice – 11 of them, Vets in the Wild – two series of eight programmes for Discovery, Vets to the Rescue – 25 episodes and then Vets in the Country.
Certainly in Trude’s case it all makes a mockery of Andy Warhol’s infamous 15 minutes of fame. But then perhaps that is the secret to it. And on top of the vet programmes have been all manner of guest appearances from Children in Need through to French and Saunders.
“I feel comfortable with a camera in front of me,” said Trude. “I’m only uneasy when I’m pushed into doing things that are not natural. I’ve never been a presenter and I never will be one in the traditional style. English is not my natural language so I’m more relaxed when I can waffle on.
“When you are working in one-off presenting jobs you work from a script and for Vets to the Rescue there was an audience and I had to do the traditional ‘Oh, hello and welcome’ bit.
“I’m not in the television business to be a presenter, I work in television because I am a vet so I am happier more with the role as an expert – as I was in Channel 5’s Britain’s Worst Pets. It was a great role for me because I’m there for what I am and there are other animal experts around me.”
Trude clearly finds it difficult to say no. “I’ve been roped into a lot of things. I did Children In Need where I had to dress up as Marilyn Monroe and sing ‘I Want to Be Loved by You’ live. I’ve never done that in my life before. I’m not a singing person.
“But there I was. I had to dance and sing at the same time with five dancers around me. Initially I said ‘no way, I’m a vet’. Five minutes later then it was ‘OK’. I had singing and dancing lessons and then I discovered I was the only one doing it live!
“I did a Christmas special with French and Saunders where they took the mickey out of an animal programme and there I was being myself. That was fun. French and Saunders were so taken aback by how proper I was. But I wasn’t acting at all. They were bringing dead leaves to me and I pretended they were normal animal clients. They just kept laughing because they couldn’t believe how serious I was. There were a lot of takes.”
Then there have been times when Trude’s been on TV but it hasn’t been her at all.
“Alistair McGowan impersonated me and I was both flattered and shocked. Suddenly you think ‘Oh my God!’ Of course it’s me on the television because of the hair and the accent,” she said.
“And there I am alongside the Beckhams and in a way I’m quite proud of it but then angry because I don’t look like that, I don’t sound like that. I don’t think they got the accent right but the body language – well yes, I’ll own up to that.”
The real bonus, however, is when TV allows Trude to take on trips that wouldn’t normally fall within the radar of a working vet. These have included travels to the Antarctic wastelands and the heart of Africa’s wild darkness. Often it is the drama off-screen that is as astonishing as anything filmed.
“I always wanted to work with African animals and I never dreamt I’d be paid to do it. And because of the way filming works the BBC finds experts and interesting cases and you just have to the follow the crew, then you are put in the middle of the action.
“There is a lot of travelling in proportion to the wildlife you film but that is wildlife filming.
“The Polar bears were fantastic. I sedated a couple and took blood samples and held their paws. That was the experience that touched me the most. They are amazing creatures and the environment they live in is beautiful. I love snow and ice.”
But it was in Africa that Trude really understood the isolation of her work. “We had some dramatic encounters with the environment and the people but not the animals,” she said.
“One of the cars in our convoy had an accident after capturing some giraffes in Kalahari. We had them in the truck and were moving them to an enclosure 24-hours away but on the way out of the Kalahari there was a head-on collision with the car that had the cameraman and sound recordist.
“The cameraman had a complete fracture of his arm and we had to go and find somewhere where we could ring for help because the satellite phone didn’t work. We had to go to a village to find a phone to summon a helicopter. Eventually we got to this village and it was dark and we didn’t have enough painkillers with us. The poor man was in agony. It was awful. Eventually we called the air ambulance from Botswana but the next problem was finding somewhere for it to land and we needed all the vehicles we could lay our hands on to light the village football pitch.
“It took three hours to find the village chief and sort out the few cars that were available but thankfully all went well. I was left on the ground with another member of the crew to drive back with the giraffe truck.
“It wasn’t easy because the giraffe is tall and there were low-slung power lines over the road. We had to shine lights above us to make sure we didn’t electrocute the giraffes.”
“These adventures don’t put me off but they make me very realistic about wildlife filming and now I’ve got a family there are different values in my life.”
Over the years Trude has done a lot of filming in North America and given the choice, she would like to work in Asia or Australia.
“It would be nice to go there but I have to combine it with the family and I think I can
do it. Today’s wildlife filming is much more popularistic but I’m still a great fan of the David Attenborough classic series and I won’t knock the new generation of films because they reach a different audience.
“Steve Irwin and the other testosterone presenters do get information across. Steve Leonard did a very good series called Ultimate Killer and Ultimate Animals and he had a nice balance of action to wildlife information.
“I’ve worked with him on Vets In The Wild and it was tough because he’s all action, action. Instead of choosing the ladder to climb down he’d jump into a pit. I was the girlie-girlie to his all-action bloke.”
The very nature of animal filming suggests danger and Trude has had her nervous moments.
“I wasn’t very keen on alligator hunting in Florida,” she remembered. “I had to lie on my stomach, put my hand in the water and pull one out. You didn’t know what was down there and the one I caught was a couple of long feet but I thought at the time that it was enormous. That was a challenge for me.
“Then there was the time I climbed into a bear den for Vets In The Wild. I found that quite claustrophobic. I was doing research on the black bear in New Mexico and had to go into the den. The bears were, in theory, hibernating with the cubs but we knew we were quite late in the season so we were worried we might be a bit too late.
“There was no space to walk in. I had to be held by the legs and pushed through a tiny opening – that was very scary. Then I had to sneak in with my syringe, sedate the mother properly and pull out the cubs to measure them.”
Though she leads a busy life, and her family commitments are growing, there are still TV ambitions and TV ideas on the go.
“I’d love to work with elephants in Asia,” she said without hesitation. “There’s a lot of trouble with ex-logging elephants down in Thailand. And I was about to go and work with the Moon bears in China when the SARS epidemic halted that trip.
“The Chinese pet culture is fascinating. On one hand they have people who will pay £3,000 to have a cat or dog pet treated and then down the road they eat them. That is the contrast I’m interested in putting forward in a sort of cutting-edge format but I think it might be too strong for British viewing.”
On the immediate agenda are a couple of programmes to be made in Norway in 2004 – which suits Trude because she can take her family home and visit family and old friends.
There are ongoing talks about a number of other projects.
“I’d love to make a programme about motherhood – human and animal. That would be great.
“But at the moment I’m working on pet manuals for dog and cat owners.”
Trude’s strength is her willingness to give it a go. There was the time when The Sun TV magazine wanted her for a front cover and persuaded her to lie on the floor with corn snakes curling through her hair.
“It was the Medusa-look and I lay there with these things trying to mate in my hair – it’s a strange experience I can tell you. It took hours to do but the following day I got a call and they said they would use a stock picture of me. The digital equipment had gone wrong and none of the pictures had come out”
It shouldn’t happen to a vet – but then it does more often than you think.