By any measure, Englishman Les Stocker has led a remarkable life. With no veterinary qualifications, over the past 40 years he has won worldwide respect as a leading authority on wildlife veterinary care.
In the 1970s, when he was an accountant, he used his spare time to care for injured hedgehogs in a backyard shed. Back then, the fate of injured wild animals was ignored – and often still is – by the veterinary profession, which concentrates on domestic and agricultural animals.
“People in England and around the world are concerned when they see a wildlife casualty, but, before, they didn’t know where to take them,” says Stocker. “When I opened my doors, they had somewhere to find help.”
Stocker set up the animal welfare charity and veterinary hospital, the Wildlife Hospital Trust, also known as Tiggywinkles (named after a hedgehog in the tales of one of Britain’s most loved writers, Beatrix Potter). The hospital, which he built in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, has 40 staff, including 12 nurses and a resident veterinary surgeon. Open every day of the year, it is visited by vets from all over the world and cares for 10,000 wild animals annually.
Stocker estimates that since 1978, he and his staff have treated 250,000 casualties at what has famously become the world’s busiest wildlife hospital. And the hospital receives requests for information from all over the world. “My estimates are that 70,000 people each year benefit from our telephone advice,” he says. “Since 1990, this equates to over a million calls.”
“The Rolex Award [received in 1990] was the first award that I received, cementing my credibility because a prestigious company like Rolex had shown confidence in my project,” says Stocker. He has since won a string of honours, including an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) bestowed by Queen Elizabeth, an Honorary Associateship of Britain’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and membership of the New York Academy of Sciences.
The vast majority of animals – from badgers to deer and owls –admitted to Tiggywinkles are injured. “If they are diseased, wild animals usually die in the wild, and we never see them. The animals we see have been injured and usually traumatized by accidents.”
Nurses try to provide emergency care in the “golden hour”, the first hour after an accident, either at the scene of the accident or as soon as animals are brought to the hospital. “This can be life-saving,” Stocker explains. If needed, animals are examined by a vet as in Britain only a qualified vet can diagnose perform operations or prescribe medicine for an animal.
Many of the animals stay at Tiggywinkles for weeks or even months of rehabilitation. “There is no owner to whom we can return the animals,” Stocker says.
Stocker is a pioneer in the care of wild animals. As there was no documented medical care for species in the wild, he has researched and invented techniques to care for them, along with the help of staff. Furthermore, he has happily shared his knowledge through the 14 books he has written, particularly his most famous publication, Practical Wildlife Care, first released 15 years ago and reprinted almost every year.
He has also recently written a comprehensive book about hedgehogs. “British people love the hedgehog because it’s the wildlife they see,” says Stocker. But the removal of hedgerows and increased use of pesticides have resulted in the population crashing to around 1 million from 35 million in the 1950s.
Stocker, at age 72, still has a major goal– to find a way to get wildlife care on the veterinary curriculum, with colleges offering courses.
Tiggywinkles does offer training to 20 animal welfare students who receive an officially recognized certificate for a year at the hospital. “To become a vet nurse, you have to learn on dogs and cats, instead they come in here as wildlife novices and we have to train them,” says Stocker. Some of these students have stayed on and now have 20 or 30 years experience in wildlife care.”
Tiggywinkles receives no government funding. Its work is supported by private donations and sources that Stocker has developed. He has established an impressive image library, taking many of the photos himself. “I do a lot of photographs that are used by international photo agencies, such as Getty Images, photos of animals and also of veterinary procedures including surgery. One photo taken by Stocker, of a brown long-eared bat, featured on a Royal Mail postage stamp in 2010.
Stocker has no plans to retire, and his son Colin now manages the Trust and hospital. Stocker Senior still often works with the nursing team, attending to injured animals. “I go out on deer rescues, though it’s more difficult to get over fences than it used to be.”
Learn more about Les Stocker