Austin Donnelly ‘Whiskers Feathers and Fur’ -reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

Austin Donnelly wanted to be a vet from a young child. There was an incident when he was eight years old where a mare, spooked by a car while birthing, galloped into the road and got hit. Both mare and the foal didn’t survive but Donnelly resolved to become a vet and help other animals. However, he spends his preface describing how he studied dentistry for a year before transferring. The reasoning for this becomes clear in a later story.

The memories start with a Limousin cow calving in County Wicklow, Ireland, which becomes a successful breech birth. However, the main story is about the discovery of a pair of red kites making a second attempt to build a nest. Stories move to England and a morbidly obese, seventeen year old cat called Marmalade. When Marmalade passed away in his sleep, his owner asked the vet for advice on how to dispose of the body. She wraps it in an old suitcase. A couple of men, strangers to her, offer to help carry the suitcase – she’s told them it contains antiques; the suitcase itself being antique backs up her story. At a crossing, the men let her cross but stay on the other side of the road. They walk quickly off and stuff the suitcase into a van, little knowing they haven’t got a haul of antiques but Marmalade’s corpse. Back in Ireland, Donnelly discovers how a love of Old English Sheepdogs keeps lambs safe from foxes and figuring out a collective noun for robins. After a move to Australia, the animals might be different but similar scenarios are found. Then it’s back to Ireland and a surprise cow pregnancy; although the real surprise is the discovery that the father isn’t the expected bull. Other stories include pigs, goats, a cat who adopted goslings, a pine marten, alpacas and the mystery of the vet’s receptionist sweet-talking a pet food sales representative into giving her dog food where the bags are damaged when she doesn’t own any dogs.

It’s the pig story that reveals why Donnelly did dentistry for a year before becoming a vet. A seasoned, old vet tells the young Donnelly, ‘Don’t do it, go and be a feckin dentist.’ This advice sticks with a young boy. Donnelly’s father later explains that the vet had a son, Christopher, who also trained to be a vet with the aim of taking over his father’s business, ‘”the young vet, Christopher, died at his own hands. It was suicide. People say the pressure of all the long hours, the isolation of the countryside and the task of filling his father’s shoes was all too much for him.” In my relatively young years, I had heard the word ‘suicide’ only once before. The previous year Kurt Cobain (the rock star) had died by suicide, and there had been lots of media coverage. This news about Christopher hit me hard. I was so saddened to hear that this happened to everyday people much closer to

home too.’ 

The memories are charmingly written and full of both human and animal characters. Donnelly’s focus is on both patients and their owners rather than him and Donnelly is prepared to admit when options are exhausted and all that can be done is to make an elderly, failing patient as comfortable as possible. Eddie’s story is just as poignant as his owner’s but his passing opens up a new beginning so the story is prevented from becoming morbid. For English readers of James Herriott’s vet stories, “Whiskers, Fur and Feathers”, covers familiar territory but with an Irish rather than Yorkshire accent. An engaging, feel-good read.