Unlikely Companions: Dr. Laurie Hess Shares Her Exotic Animal Adventures

unlikely companions
Dr. Laurie Hess' book, Unlikely Companions, contains stories for all kinds of animal lovers, dog and cat people included.

Dr. Laurie Hess — a regular Vetstreet contributor, owner and medical director of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics, and one of only about 125  bird specialists board-certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners — has long regaled her friends and colleagues with funny, heartwarming and occasionally hard-to-believe stories about the avian and exotic pets she treats... and their owners.

And now, she's sharing those stories — along with a look at some of the personal challenges she's faced throughout her career — with the rest of us in her new book, Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor (Or, What Friends Feathered, Furred, and Scaled Have Taught Me About Life and Love, which is available today. While the names (and sometimes the species) of her clients have been changed to protect their privacy, their stories are engaging and enlightening.

We got our hands on an advance copy of the book and were delighted (although not surprised) with the way Dr. Hess weaves the stories of animals she has treated — ranging from Judge Judy-loving rabbits to an enormous Central Park snapping turtle to a parrot in police custody — into a candid narrative of her struggles to balance her career, her family and her own health.

Vetstreet: Your title references lessons you've learned. What's one you can share without giving too much of the book away?
Dr. Laurie Hess: I think the biggest lesson on life is that animals are not always just simple pets to people — they can have a much deeper meaning that a lot of people don’t appreciate. I hope that [the book will help] people who don’t have exotic pets realize that you can appear to form these incredible bonds with the most unlikely companions, whether it’s a rat or a chinchilla or a sugar glider — any animal that most people don’t know much about. And these animals can form incredible bonds with people, just as a dog or a cat might.

VS: You touch on numerous cases and all types of species, but the story of those sugar gliders is threaded all throughout the book. Did that case inspire you to take on this project?
LH: I think I was already considering writing the book, and as I was telling the story to people, I knew it would be great to write about. I had always been encouraged to write down these crazy anecdotal stories. Some of them were so funny or heartwarming — and some were so unbelievable — and as I started to think about the book, it seemed logical to make the sugar glider story a big story.

VS: Who do you envision as your target audience? 
LH: It's for animal lovers in general. I think exotic pet owners will really identify with the book, but I think any pet owner would understand the bonds that the people in the book are making with their pets — even if the reader doesn’t have that exact species of pet.

And there’s a bit in there about me being a crazy-busy working mom trying to juggle my life and my career. I think a lot of women can definitely relate to that — having a passion for a career and having to spend a lot of time training for it, but also loving your family and wanting to spend time with them. No matter what kind of career you may have, your family is really important and you have to try to strike a balance. It can be hard, but a woman can raise her children to respect the fact that their mother works and has a career, too.

VS:  You don’t shy away from discussing your efforts to find that balance.
LH: A lot of things happened when I set up my animal hospital seven years ago — it was a really big struggle. I’m proud of what I’ve done as a veterinarian, and I’m very proud of my hospital. I’m very aware that there were some trade-offs, but I don’t think I regret them. 

I’m glad my kids were a big part of setting up the hospital, and I think they’re very proud of what I’ve set up and they’re proud of my job. They understand when I have emergency calls that I have to deal with, because that’s who we are — we help the animals, and we’ve always helped the animals. I don’t think they’ve ever been resentful of that.

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