She knew from the age of seven she wanted to dedicate her life to saving animals. But Dr Kim Kendall’s two fields of interest—cats and elephants—couldn’t be further apart, discovers Samantha Trenoweth
Dr Kim Kendall, one of this country’s most highly respected feline veterinarians and a world leader in feline medicine and behaviour, calls herself a ‘catvocate’. Her research, vet practice and grooming and boarding centre, the Cat Palace on Sydney’s north shore, are all about cat-friendly, cat-centred care.
“It’s something I’ve been engaged in for a long time,” she explains. “Early in my career, I worked at a general vet practice in Cape Cod in the USA, and we used to hold regular Cats’ Nights Out, where we would only see cats. I’ve had my own cat-friendly practice for 20 years and I was an inaugural author of the Cat Friendly Program in England. These have all been founded on a similar principle, which is doing things that cats appreciate, instead of making life more efficient for the vets or their staff.”
At Dr Kendall’s Chatswood Cat Palace, consultations are booked 30 minutes apart, so cats rarely see each other, even in the waiting room. And the staff are very conscious of eliminating odours.
“There are a lot of vets who say, if you have one grumpy cat, the cats will be grumpy all day,” Dr Kendall explains. “That is because any cat who is upset in the clinic leaves little smell messages that will upset all the subsequent cats. You have to clean the room properly and clean the air properly, so no smells remain.
“It’s about asking, what is this experience like for the animal? If the animal is happy, then the owner’s not stressed and it is easier for the vets and their staff to do their work. So everyone is less stressed. If you go back to the idea that the animal is significant in the equation, as opposed to a recipient of your process, it’s a completely different attitude but it’s probably not any more time consuming once you get the
rhythm of it.”
Dr Kendall knows that the cats she handles aren’t stressed because, aside from their demeanour, she has blood tests to prove it.
“There has been a lot written,” she explains, “about how, if a cat has high blood glucose, it could be a result of stress. And because the conditions in the universities where studies on cats originate are not feline-friendly, almost the normal profile for cats has become a stressed profile. That never happens here. When I handle cats, their blood glucose doesn’t go up. So I get actual, physiological results, which can be quite different from results when blood tests are taken in less cat-friendly clinics.”
Another practice that raises Dr Kendall’s hackles is solo kitten adoption. Don’t get her started! “These cats are being set up for lives of misery,” she insists.
“I gave a seminar at the Australian College of Veterinary Science on social isolation in kittens. That research was done in the 1960s and you would not be allowed to do it today. They took kittens away from their mothers at two weeks old and hand-fed them and they took them away at six weeks old and at 12 weeks. When you read about how those animals turned out, it’s horrific.
“Yet we are doing that same experiment, by default, with rescue kittens. When those kittens are adopted solo, without a mother or brother or sister or friend, they’re being set up for a lifetime of mental distress. It was proven years ago that they need a cat friend until they’re a few months old. I noticed this because I was seeing rescue kittens coming back to my practice, a year or so after adoption, and they’d become buzzsaw attack cats. I don’t care about the owner’s happiness but I do care about the animals, and they shouldn’t be in mental distress.
“This is an area where a vet can make a real difference. If you see someone adopting one kitten, say ‘Get two’. It’s so much better for the cat, it’s easier for the owner and it’s more business for you. Nobody loses. So that’s the stuff that interests me now. It’s this welfare paradigm; it’s about the animal.”
Cats weren’t lonely for long in Kim Kendall’s house when she was growing up. Her parents report that she was the kind of kid who “found ringwormy stray kittens under trees and brought them home”. Family pets included a black cat, a kitten (who vanished unexpectedly), a couple of dogs, a horse and assorted rabbits and budgerigars.
Dr Kendall’s family lived in Hawaii until she was seven. Her parents were New Zealanders who met and married in Canada, stopped off in Hawaii on the way home, and stayed. Soon after they packed up and moved to Sydney, Dr Kendall gave her future some serious thought.
“I was seven when it occurred to me that I could be one of three things: a teacher, an air hostess or a vet. Even back then, I realised I wasn’t particularly good with people and that, if I was a teacher, I’d probably have to ignore the children. Air hostesses, back in those days, were subject to strict height and weight requirements and I realised I would be too tall and too fat to be an air hostess. That left being a vet.
“So, at seven I made that decision and, from then on, whenever people asked what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be a vet. People told me that I would need to study science and maths and Latin at school, so I did that, and I passed. They said I would have to study hard. So, at 15, I gave up my horse in order to study hard enough to be a vet. Then, at university, one of the lecturers, Rex Butterfield, said, ‘If you can get into this course, you can pass it.’ So I thought, okay, and I did. I just unquestioningly followed this path that I’d set out for myself at the age of seven.”
“What is this experience like for the animal? If the animal is happy, then the owner’s not stressed and it’s easier for the vets to do their work.” Dr Kim Kendall, feline veterinarian
Dr Kendall first became interested in elephants while she was studying at the University of Sydney and living nearby in Glebe.
“My husband, John, and I used to go down to Wentworth Park and visit the elephants that stayed there when the circus came to town. In those days, I dreamed of having an elephant practice in Balmain. Then, after university, while I was waiting to begin work in America, I spent some time in Florida and there I met a vet called Elliot Jacobson, who had a real elephant practice—or at least he had elephants on his books. There were 90 baby elephants living on a farm in Florida and he took care of them.
“Later, while I was working in Cape Cod, I made contact with a vet called Richard Houck. He worked for Barnum & Bailey’s Circus and was a friend of Elliot Jacobson. So when the circus came to nearby Boston, my husband and I went to see Dr Houck and he gave us permission to ride his elephants through the city streets. That was certainly a highlight of my life.”
Every year, the elephants arrived in Boston by train and walked across town to the park where the circus was held. To ride the elephants, Dr Kendall and John had to be approved by both the vet and the trainer but, says Dr Kendall, the elephants knew exactly what to do. The riders simply sat up on top and watched as their charges ambled along busy streets. “They knew exactly where to go and what to do. They’d done it many, many times before. They liked to walk past trees to check if there was any fruit growing on them and sometimes they’d pull fruit out of the hands of passers by.”
Elephant riding in Boston has now become largely a thing of the past. The parade has been cancelled in recent years due, at least in part, to protests by animal rights groups.
For 20 years, Dr Kendall’s practice has focused on cats but her interest in elephants has never left her. She worked for a time in Zimbabwe and she was an active supporter of Byron Bay vet Claire Oelrichs’ work to save Sumatran elephants, and other species, from falling into unmarked wells in the Way Kambas National Park. She is also an avid supporter of Australian Museum Eureka Prize winner and Victorian equine behaviouralist, Andrew McLean, whose more humane method for training elephants is increasingly used throughout Asia and has been adopted as the only legal method in Nepal.
Dr Kendall was tempted by retirement a year or two ago. She and John spend weekends on their property near Goulburn, New South Wales, and the idea of living there full time was, she admits, enticing. But her fascination and affection for cats lured her back into practice.
“I get passionate about whatever I believe in,” she insists, “and I believe in looking after my clients’ animals. I haven’t found another vet who’s as interested in cats and cat behaviour as I am. There are vets who are interested in cat medicine but, for me, every consultation is a behavioural consultation. So, I think I still have a lot to give because my qualification set is quite unique.”