TV presenter and respected naturalist Chris Packham gave a heartfelt keynote address, sharing his enduring passion for wildlife and conservation, and highlighting the human-animal bond and the intrinsic link between treating the animal and treating the owner.
Chris Packham has a passion for animal welfare to rival almost anyone, but only wanted to become a vet ‘for five minutes any number of times’ to save an animals’ life. He told a packed hall his sometimes controversial views are only aired in public because he is trying to start a conversation about things that he cares about.
Yet mostly he talked about an unconditional love for his poodle Scratchy and his admiration for the treatment that he receives from his local veterinary practice. As someone who has spoken candidly about his struggles with depression, he emphasised the important role that pets have played in maintaining his own mental health and that of millions of others. He recognised the vital work that vets do to safeguard the wellbeing of both humans and animals.
“People come to you to keep our loved one alive and some of us love those animals as much, if not more, than our own family. Some of us don’t have friends, these are our friends,” he said.
“For some of us, we and our pets are in a bubble and the rest of the world is a terrible place only made tolerable when we are together safe inside. Some of us are connected to those pets by a thread that runs between our hearts – please look after us both.”
Chris followed in the recent footsteps of Alice Roberts, Mark Beaumont and Richard Dawkins; but speaking before presenting his keynote address, Chris said that teaching children to love science through narratives, and by reconnecting to the environment, was vital for future generations to make a difference.
“I can’t speak with great authority about secondary school but I still think a lot of science is inaccessible because it’s taught in a formulaic way. One of the easiest ways for young people to get into anything is through narrative – stories – and by going through a learning experience. When it comes to natural sciences the one thing that is implicitly important is young people have contact with their subject, so one of the reasons we’re suffering in terms of conservation and environment is people are learning their trade in the library rather than in the woods, and I wonder what motivates them,” he said.
“The teaching needs to be imaginative and narrative-led – the process of understanding a fact is often more interesting than the fact itself. School is the key, everyone has to go to school so that’s the most important cohort – we need to instigate an interest, we have to build time in the curriculum for natural sciences and we have to encourage teachers to allow all young people to engage with nature.”
Chris is a big supporter of keeping pets and believes there are ‘enormously significant’ benefits for both humans and animals, especially the companionship for young people. He also suggested vets should treat both the pet and the owner.
“The vets interface traditionally is with the animal, but the animal and the person that attends your clinic are intrinsically connected, so when you are treating the animal you are actually treating the people as well. If there’s one thing from personal experience it’s developing the ability to empathise and communicate accordingly to the human.”
But Chris never wanted to be a vet except in life-saving situations: “There were any number of times I would have loved to have been a vet for five minutes to have saved the life of an animal that was dying in my arms, I’d have given my whole world at those times. As a kid it was less about welfare and more about wildlife – for me it was about understanding how everything worked, so I never felt the vet route. My passion was always split between art and zoology and when it came down to it, it was ecology, I wanted to be in the woods studying something.”