Deep in the forest of Finnish Lapland I am arriving in front of the impressive timber cottage of Markus Killi which is guarded by a number of thickly fured dogs.
“Do you like Chilli con Carne?” Markus, a man build like a tree himself, asks as I am getting out of the car.
Of course I do…….
Markus, a veterinary entrepreneur, used to own some large veterinary clinics in the South of Finland, before selling them all and moving up North, pursuing one of his other great passions in life : high end photography.
His depictions of the Aurora Borealis and of Finnish wildlife have featured in National Geographics and some images that he took in Lapland are decorating living rooms all over the world.
While admiring his house, Markus tells me that the purchase was one of the best deals of his life. Not only because he loves living here, but also because he later found out that the timber that was used to build the house is no longer obtainable in this size in the whole of Finland. Just the cost of the trunks exceeded double the purchase price of the whole real estate.
It turns out that Markus is not only a great vet and businessmen, but also an excellent cook and while sitting in his kitchen enjoying the warm dish, we are philosophing about the benefits of a life at the Northern fringe of Europe.
After the meal Markus shows me a small treatment room in the basement of his house. It is far removed from the space and from the facilities his clinics in the South used to offer, but even with his limited means Markus is providing up here a very vital service to the local community and many pet lifes were saved in this room when an hour long transport to larger clinics wouldn’t have been an option.
When the time has come to say goodbye to Markus and his dogs, I am once again confronted with the complexity of the Finnish language and I am wondering how long it might take to type the Finnish word for “veterinary practice” on an English keyboard….
A thin slither of sand, in places not more than a few hundred meters wide and crowned with thick pin forest and undoubtedly one of the most striking features of the Baltic Sea is the Curonian Spit. This giant sand dune is nearly 100 kms long and connects Lithuania in the North and the Russian owned exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast in the South.
This UNESCO World heritage site is the home of a lot of well adapted wildlife including a few beach walking moose and the large fresh water Lagoon behind it is an important habitat for marine wildlife including a lot of seabirds.
At the Northern tip of the Curonian Spit lies Klaipeda, Lithuania’s only harbour and a popular seaside resort.
In the basement of a Soviet style apartment block I find one of Lithuania’s most renouned veterinary clinics, run by Linas Varanauskas.
This time I am arriving unanounced, but Linas – having just finished an operation – gives me a warm welcome and invites me to see his clinic and to meet his team.
What doesn’t look very impressive from the outside turns out to be a very tidy and uncluttered space with an impressive array of services provided by Linas and his very dediced team of veterinary professionals.
Consulting rooms are held small and functional but with low sit down desks, which continues to be the norm in many practices in Central Europe. Both abdominal as well as cardiac ultrasonography is been offered at the clinic.
While a feline patient is slowly recovering from her fracture repair …
I notice on the clinic wall the remains of a canine species that had not been so lucky….
Wolfs are surprisingly common again in this part of the world and hunting licenses have been issued to limit their impact on local lifestock.
And another reminder not only of the geographical location but also of the complexity of the current political situation can be found on the opposite wall in the form of a few souvenirs of one of our very famous Russian colleagues….
Never ignore an invitation for an evening stroll along the seaside in one of Europe’s fastest changing cities – Tallinn.
This applies even more so if your tour guide is no one less than the grande dame of companion animal veterinary medicine in Estonia – Tiina Toomet, my perennial host and occasional saviour whenever I am staying in the Estonian capital.
In the Baltic states Tiina is a household name because of her frequent television and radio appearances and because of her very popular books, describing her journey into veterinary medicine and her personal connection and experiences with her own pets and with memorable patients.
For me though the most impressive aspect of Tiina is her vast knowledge of her own city and her own country, of the dramatic transformation Estonia has gone through and her positive take on everything that is new and exciting, regardless if it is an innovation in veterinary medicine, a restaurant or a musical or cultural event. All of these are enjoyed and compared with history in mind and with a strong desire to live and enjoy life in the now.
Our evening stroll started at the stylishly re-developed marina of Port Noblessner. The place is featuring a lot of individually crafted appartments that look like an urban design competition where all the final entries have been build next to each other. Eye watering pricetags can safely be assumed I would think……
The old industrial units opposite of these appartments host offices for new start ups and some great examples of the fine dining revolution that is in full swing to challenge Copenhagen and Stockholm for their dominance in the Baltic region.
And this for a good reason – you might eat here cheaper and possibly better than in these Scandinavian capitals, even if you price in your flight and a night’s hotel accommodation.
A good example is Lore Bistroo where we found not only high end cooking but also a warm and very welcoming ambience, with even the dog being made comfortable.
Before now even trying to explain our food in detail, I suggest watching this great video of the Tallinn Travel Series (if you don’t have enough time for the whole video, just move forward to Dinner 5…..)
After tickling our taste buds and with a few glasses of Sauvignon Blanc in our blood streams, we carried on with our evening stroll and after just a few minutes found ourselves surrounded by a cluster of strange round shaped objects – Tallinn’s Iglupark.
Here you can rent just for hours or for days a truly unusual office space, a meeting room or a holiday cabin just by the sea side.
The centre of complex is an open air bar and while we were waiting for our next drinks, I noticed a naked man (ok….he was wearing a towel) twice my size standing next to me ……. so you could also rent the – in Estonia obligatory – sauna here in form of an igloo!…….
As having a sauna after so much food and wine wasn’t really an option for us, we left this polar setting and carried on to the next site, which was more familiar to me: Tallinn’s Sea Plane Harbour.
With a number of military and commercial shipping vessels being parked outside,
the place features one of the largest hangars in the world, which is now not only the home of the Estonian Maritime Museum , but it also houses an entire submarine !
Finally we arrived at the Patarei Sea Fortress – also known as Tallinn’s Central Prison. Having been used as such by the Soviets, during the German occupation and by the Estonian State until 2005, it now houses a spooky prison museum (apparently visitors were asked to go on a self guided tour without a guide or a map….) and I wouldn’t be surprised if this site will become the next historic building that will see a very Estonian transformation.
I can’t wait for another stroll along the sea front in Tallinn…..
Having studied in Hanover with more than 230 students in the same year, there wasn’t much direct interaction with our lecturers and it was easy to feel just like a small fish in a large pond.
Large institutions like UC Davis or London’s Royal Veterinary College are world renowned for their ground breaking scientific work, but this not necessarily translates into better day one professional competency of the graduates of these universities.
Smaller vet schools can provide a more personalized and bespoke education, which might be more suitable for day to day clinical work. This I could see when I visited Bristol Vet School, which at the time had 80 students per year and even more so at Oslo Vet School which was education only 45 (lucky) students per annum.
One of these smaller vet schools that I had heard of a lot and that was the Alma Mater to a number of my Baltic colleagues, is the veterinary faculty of Estonia, based in the picturesque city of Tartu.
Taking advantage of an invitation of my friend Ingrid Hang who was lecturing there for a few days, I didn’t had to be asked twice to make a little detour to finally visit the place.
Already at the entrance I was reminded that these days more than 90% of veterinary undergraduates are women – a considerable change to my time at university where we had a fairly equal gender distribution. Historically veterinary medicine had been – unsurprisingly – an exclusively male profession.
We were welcomed by Aleksandr Semjonov the Head of the Small Animal Clinic and it was interesting to learn that Tartu was not only running a course for Estonian students, but was offering in addition to this a Finnish stream. This – as already seen in Zagreb – provides the vet school with a not inconsiderable extra income source.
The consulting rooms were spacious and well lid and there was a relaxed atmosphere with no shortage of staff attending to a number of small animal patients – some of them not so impressed to be here….
As this is a teaching hospital the operating theatres were probably larger then in a privately owned clinic and Aleksandr, an anaesthesiology specialist, made not only sure that state of the art knowledge in this field was applied, but live feeds of every anaesthesia monitoring machine in the building were accessable at all times in his private office.
The lecturing rooms including the anatomy collection – a typical feature of all veterinary schools – were well kept and these rooms just showed that certain elements of veterinary education just can not do without the opportunity for hands on experience.
Some of the life sized models were hand made and according to Aleksandr the model of a horse with artificial but anatomically correct internal organs had to be shipped all the way from the US with a five figure Euro/Dollar price tag.
Another example why the veterinary course – not only in Estonia – is the most expensive form of education universities can offer and a reminder to me to be eternally grateful for having had the opportunity to become a member of this profession.
One of the real highlights in the life of every veterinarian is to be able to apply their craft to more unusual animals and we are all looking up the rare species called “Zoo Vets”.
If you – like me – don’t belong to this exclusive club, then at least knowing one is second best.
In my case this applies to Sanna Hellström, an extraordinary women with unusual hobbies including circus acrobatics or collecting the streets of her city by walking them all starting at “A”……
After joining her on this task by ticking off a couple of “J” streets from her list, Sanna invited me to meet her on the next day at the zoo in Helsinki.
Sanna is also the Director of Helsinki Zoo, which is located on a little island outside the city center and – leaving Mia behind – I am meeting Sanna at the end of a bridge which – so far (a new direct tram link is currently being build) – is the only connection to the city.
Our first stop is – of course – the veterinary clinic of the zoo. Here I meet a dedicated team of vets and nurses prepared to see pretty much any species of animal that is coming through their door, including a fair amount of native wildlife and all sorts of animals that have been ceased at the international port and airport.
A very typical case is this water bird that was presented with an airgun pellet near its shoulder joint and an old, but reasonably well healed wing fracture.
Although most of the equipment is very similar to that of a normal small animal clinic, some features like the noticably larger examination table or the large variety of different sized transport cages indicate that a much broader variety of animal speczies are treated here. Most of these animals are also not as well behaved and as tolerant as a domestic dog or cat and the clinic needs to hold a wide selection of sedative drugs to safely work on these patients.
Much thought is given and time is spend on meeting both national and international regulations on transporting, handling and treating exotic spezies. It appears to me that here as everywhere in veterinary facilities these days more time is spend with administrative and regulatory tasks than with actual clinical practice.
However, in this case this is important not only to ensure the safety of the team and of the general public, but also to meet the basic welfare requirements of these animals and to avoid any mishaps which might result in the loss of a potentially very rare patient.
With the zoo being part of a number of international conservation projects, a lot of attention is given to reproduction work and at the time of my visit the zoo had just welcomed a new litter of tiger cubs. In return some animals reproduce very fast and measures need to be taken to avoid an overproduction of these animals in zoos.
Sanna no longer works in clinical veterinary medicine as all of her time is now taken just by managing the Zoo, which needs to reinvent itself all the time with new initiatives (like open evenings and late night admissions) and with permanent maintenance and new building work.
Some of the main attractions of the Zoo are the very rare Amur Tigers
and the probably even rarer Amur Leopards.
Both of these species are well adapted to the cold winter temperatures in Helsinki. This applies in fact to most of the animals kept at the zoo and there are only very few tropical species, which is of huge benefit for the annual heating bill of the zoo.
A fair amount of the natural features of the zoo island have remained unchanged, so that it is still possible – and very normal for a Nordic country – to have a camp fire on a dedicated site among all the animals and there is even a public kindergarden on the island. What more stimulation can you give to small children to encourage them to become future vets ?
Following the well tarmaced road South (it was just a dirt track the last time I was here…), I am reaching Kautokeino, the final settlement before the Finnish border.
Here I had to re-visit a place that seems so outlandish but that is now such an integral part of the town that both are often mentioned in the same sentence.
The story goes back all the way to 1959 when a young German-Danish artist couple decided that their ideal working environment was not the Cote Azur or a Spanish metropolis, but the harsh climate of the tundra and one of the few remaining normadic communites on the European continent.
Regine and Frank Juhl got inspirated by the pureness of the snow covering the landscape around them for many months every year, by the Northern lights in the winter and by the never ending days in the summer.
They started with very humble beginnings – just a small house with a tiny work shop, but over the years their silver gallery grew and grew and individually designed extentions were added to the initial buildings in regular intervals.
Like Cesar Manrique’s House on Lanzarote, which fuses with the lava that formed the landscape there, the silver workshops and galleries grew like a strange flower among the uniform birch trees which are surounding the building, providing not only a fitting environment to display pieces of art, but working at the same time as a example for the ideal working environment they had imagined for themselves and for their co-workers and as an expression of the creativity of some exceptional human beings.
As individual as each extention looks from the outside, as diverse is the interior design and the display of items inside the buildings: there is a dedicated room for paintings and glass ware, another two for both traditional Sami silver as well as for the team’s own designs. One room shows household items of the Finnmark Vidda whereas another – layed out with carpets and decorated in a more oriental style – tells of the Juhl’s deep admiration for Afghanistan – a country they visited in the 1980th.
The importance of animals in their life is demonstrated in a room that features a large glass window allowing a view into a ordinary stable where sheep are sheltering and chicken are perching at eye level.
The Juhl’s admiration for animals appears to be followed by today’s management team which meant that Mia was not only tolerated but in fact warmly invited by a member of the team to enjoy the tranquil environment of the gallery as well. However, I elected to sideline with my canine companion the areas with the precious glass ware which was displayed on very low tables……
When entering the gallery one immediately notices the beautiful sculpture of a colourful finger with the imprint directed towards the viewer with the object itself surounded by uncleaned paintburshes, open pots of oil paint, by splattered ceramic tiles and various tools, just as if the artists had just left for a cigarette or a coffee – one of Frank’s final works and like the whole gallery his legacy to the world.
Regine and Frank’s silverware is now sold in dedicated galleries in larger Norwegian cities and in jewellery shops all over Scandinavia.
While listening to the wind running through the delicate leaves of the birch forest which is showing early autumn colours, I am enjoying a late breakfast with fresh cloud berries at the lonely mountain station near Maze (pronounced “Masi”) at the Northern rim of the Finnmark Vidda.
To reach this place , I have followed the Alta river for 50 kilometers from the North Atlantic Coast as I had done many times years ago when I worked here as a veterinary student.
The Vidda is seemingly endless, with very little features and with a very fragile eco-system (there is a very thin line here between just bare rocks and a vibrant low growing arctic forest with a dense layer of small shrubs and flowers that depend on precious four months of endless light and on unfrozen ground) you will find at this place one of Europe’s harshest climate conditions.
This truly is Sami country – if you are not born here, you will never fully understand or appreciate it. Every piece of the environment was vital for human survival: the trees provided firewood and precious housing and construction material, the berries gave much needed vitamins especially through the long months of winter and darkness, the reindeer was a vital source of food, material for clothes and transport and even the snow and ice made progress so much faster and easier in the winter.
Although modern transport and supply systems have by now eliminated most off these direct needs – the (much larger but less tasty) bluebeeries in the local supermarket are coming today from green houses in the Netherlands …..- a deeper understanding and adaption of the Sami way of life (eg to consider winter with the polar night as the by far best season of the year (the world around you covered in a blanket of pure white, just iluminated by the moon and the stars with very few noises or smells and without any tourists) is vital to enjoy life here.
At the cabin I was greeted by a friendly Samoyed – a dog breed made for these climates.
This small island of shelter has for over 150 years not only been a road side cafe, but in many cases an absolute lifesaver for hikers being taken by surprise by a sudden change of the weather conditions.
The mountain hut offers not only simple accommodation, but now also a pretty good percolated coffee and the surprisingly good cloud berry icecream and the home made waffle are testimony of the progress the culinary offerings have made since my last visit.
But now 80 km (or 8 Norwegian miles….) further South to Kautokeino….
Finishing my last consultation on a Friday afternoon, I am picking up the ever patient Mia and we are leaving Tromsø Island , this rock in the Sea that resembles a Swiss Cheese with its confusing system of underground tunnels with round abouts and huge parking garages and we are heading first West and then North to Ringvassøy, one of the snow capped islands that is sheltering the city from the harsh North Atlantic climate.
Leaving the car behind after a 30 minute journey, I am surounded by a forest of small birch trees, by a green carpet of blue berries and the occasional cloud berry and a stream of clear water which is coming from small waterfalls on both sides of the valley.
My aim of this evening hike is Ringvassbu, a small cabin on a lake high up in the mountains. The hut is one of over 500 similar places, often in very remote locations, which belongs to “Det Norske Turistforening” – an institution I deeply admire.
The mission of this organisation which dates back to the 19th century, is to make the outdoors available to everyone, regardless how rich or poor they are. For a moderate annual membership fee you are issued with a key that will open the locks of beautiful cabins all over the country. Some of these are staffed, but the majority (like Ringvassbu) are unmanned. Quite a few of these – especially in the South of the country – contain also a well stocked store of non- perishable and frost resistant food which you are invited to use.
Following your stay you just fill in a form, detailing the nights you stayed and the food you took out of the store and you send your record together with your credit card details to the central or to the regional office. A system that is completely based on trust and honesty of their members that is working and that has stood the test of time.
Moreover, as a user you take pride in leaving the hut in a better condition than you found it in the first place ! Because of this all of the huts are in a clean and tidy condition with no unwashed kitchen utensils left behind, with fire wood ready to be used and with the floor not only sweeped but also washed before the last visitor is leaving a hut.
In addition to this there is an army of local volunteers that is looking after all these buildings – often in form of a week long maintenance holiday – to take care of larger repair and maintenance jobs.
Funds are not only generated through the membership fees, but also through the National Lottery and through generous donations of indivituals and businesses. A typical example is Olav Thon – one of Norways richest men – who owns not only half of Oslo, but also an international chain of hotels. Part of the profit of these is dedicated to the DNT hut system. As both a lifelong outdoor man and hiker himself as well as a hotel owner, Thon (now soon 100 years old…..) for many years took a keen interest himself in the design of the huts, which included that the bottom beds of some rooms were ideally 120 cm wide, so that they would also fit two people…..
Taking my time while ascending towards the hut, the night closed in on us
and as we had to scamble over more bolders than expected, I became concerned about Mia’s paws and decided to spend the first night in my small mountain tent at the shores of a mountain lake.
My canine companion not only agreed, but was even more delighted when I started to fry on my camping stove one of the steaks I had bought earlier that day (good food is important in the mountains !).
The next day we reached the hut after a short hike, just in time for breakfast with a couple of other hikers with another dog which unbeknown to me had already occupied the cabin, which proofed that my decision to spend the previous night in the tent was a good one.
As this party was leaving later that morning, we then had the hut for ourselves the rest of the weekend.
And what do you then do in a Norwegian mountain hut ?…..
It’s simple : have the perfect weekend to relax !
This is how that looks like :
Lay down and read (“Reina Roja” by Juan Gomez-Jurado (not for the faint hearted…..), then fall asleep……
then wake up, go hiking with a small pack, admire the landscape
watch some reindeer
then cook some food, read some more and sleep some more and worry about nothing but your immediate needs as you can’t change anything else at the moment anyway……
The next day – following a long stay in bed and obviously a decent cleaning job……- it was time to leave a short entry in the visitor book and then to lock up the hut again
before descending towards the Coast to face with recharged batteries another week at the clinic.
It appears that I forgot to mention my feline patients here in the North.
In Tromsø, just a few hundred kilometers from the Northkap, they are in for a special treat :
The World’s most Northern Cat Clinic !
Long gone are the days when dogs were sitting in the vet’s waiting room right next to frightened cats in their carrier boxes. Even the most remote small animal veterinary practice these days should have realised by now that this is stressful for both the cat as well as for the owner .
Simple interior design solutions like separate waiting room areas or elevated storage facilities for carrier baskets are employed to provide cats with a degree of privacy which in return results in a less stressed patient in the consulting room – which translates into more meaningful examinations and less cat bite injuries. ( A small fact on the side: in 30 years of companion animal practice I was never bitten by a cat…..ok, with that statement I have outed myself as a cat nerd…..)
However, the Gold Standard of cat friendly practices are Cat (only) Clinics.
These clinics are a fairly recent development in companion animal veterinary medicine and – here a serious health warning to all veterinary professional reading this block – they are addictive !
Cat Clinics operate in an alternative universe : time here is slowing down and the environment is quiet and peaceful, warm, soft and comfortable and anything that might still be considered as a threat by a cat is made as predictable as possible……Movements during the consultations are slower and with the help of feline pheromones and a deeper understanding of the specific behaviour of cats cleverly applied, any form of restraint is virtually always avoided.
What is comfortable and non-challenging for cats (no-surprisingly….) is also more enjoyable for humans…..
One of these feline only clinics is placed just opposite of the Small Animal Clinic (where we also treat some cats….).
Located on the 1st floor of a modern highrise building, just next to a well equipped gym, feline medicine is practiced in a spacious and ultra modern environment.
The consulting rooms have a minimalistic interior design with very little options for a feline escapee to hide (which is why most cats then happily remain on the consulting room table).
There are large windows on both sides of the building to provide good light (providing that the time of the year is offering some….)
…and even the operating theatre is a “room with a view”.
No wonder that this is a “Gold Standard” Cat Friendly Practice and even among the veterinary team the shifts at the cat clinic are extremely popular.
Who would have thought of this line of veterinary service provision just 20-30 years ago ?
With cats now overtaking dogs as more suitable companions for an urban lifestyle, prepare yourself that this will progressively become a common sight in the 21st century.
It is 7:30 in the morning and following a typical Norwegian breakfast with cooked coffee, caramelised goats cheese and polar bread, I am starting the first day at my newest place of work – the Anicura Small Animal Clinic in Tromsø.
The clinic is located just opposite of the local police station and right next to the fire brigade – so what possibly can go wrong ?…….
The building used to house for several decades a leather factory that was working “with the skins of domestic animals (let’s assume that this was limited to farm animals….), seals and wolffish (!)”. When the leather trade dried up and the property stood vacant, the ground floor was transformed into a spacious small animal clinic.
So high up in the North, with extremely low temperatures and a couple of months without any sun light at all, one might wonder what dogs other than Huskies people might keep here and what the usual work load of the clinic might be.
Of course there are quite a few of these guys around, but as the Husky up here is more a working dog rather than a pet, not a lot of them are coming through the doors of the clinic. This has partially commercial reasons as it might not be economically feasable to take out pet insurance for a place with up to 200 sledge dogs (as above) and partially this is due to the skills of the mushers who are able to treat a lot of conditions themselves.
No so though when it comes to Ceasarian sections where – as in veterinary clinics around the Globe – the delivery of a new litter of puppies is always a happy occasion.
The majority of canine patients at the clinic are actually very similar to that of urban clinics in the UK or in Germany.
Here as well French Bulldogs and Staffordshire Bullterriers are a very common sight in the waiting room and – to my great surprise – a large number of toy breeds like Chihuahuas, Papillons and even the odd Corgie.
As similar as the dog breeds are to those in the UK, are also the conditions we are treating . There is the occasional bit wound to attend to or a more challenging road traffic accident injury. With more dogs being outside in the summer, there are a number of eye injuries but a considerably lower incident of skin conditions as both the extreme climate as well as the Scandinavian interior building designs make the lives of these parasites pretty uncomforatble.
Compared to my recent workload in Sweden there are far less injuries caused by encounters with the local wildlife. I am still waiting for my first moose attack patient here…..
Whatever the problem is, also here in Tromsø I can rely on an extremely well equipped work place with a super friendly and knowledgable team of colleagues.
Lameness and neurological patients like this friendly Bullterrier with a supected unilateral Trigeminus paresis
can benefit not only from a digital radiography system, but also from a CT underneath the same roof.
MRI scans are arranged on an individual patient basis in the evenings at the local human hospital.
Already on my second day at work I was confronted with a 4 months old Shiba Inu with a fractured frontlimb.
With currently no orthopaedic surgeon working this far North, the owners had the option to get the limb splinted (not a good choice with this typ of fracture) or to fly the dog South to Bergen or to Oslo to get it operated. Thankfully a number of excellent specialists had visited the clinic previously, so that a lot of equipment was in fact on sight and after some hunting around for the necessary hardware, I managed to stabilise the fracture with an External Fixator (a good option with a still growing patient).
For dental procedures there is even a dedicated room with two well equipped tables aided by digital dental radiography (better as at most human dentists).
Finally – when being presented with a cat with a hardly visible foreign body in her cornea, Cecilie (“The Oracle” – as she always knows where everything is……..) one of the excellent head nurses suggested that I might like to make use of the surgical microscope for this case !……
This – I openly admit – was an absolute first for me, but good Lord, what a revelation having this piece of kit at my disposal !……
Following 20 minutes to set everything up, it took 2 minutes to remove the offending object and both the cat as well as the vet where much happier….
To sum it up – not the worst place to work at………
But just hang on a moment – I just realise that we have hardly spoken about cat !………