The case of the curious vet
He’s the blonde-haired, broad-shouldered vet who’s as comfortable in a tuxedo in front of a TV camera as he is on a surfboard at Bondi Beach or in the South African jungle with his hand up an elephant’s bum. While we know him best for his work as a TV presenter, Dr Chris Brown is still a veterinarian first and foremost. And he’s on a mission to save two of Australia’s furriest treasures.
They say curiosity killed the cat, but in this real-life story, it was curiosity that led a young vet into a TV career, after saving a cat from a gunshot wound and using the story to impress a girl at a bar.
That was 16 years ago, and today Dr Chris Brown is one of Australia’s most well-known TV personalities. What many don’t realise though, is that the TV presenter for popular shows like I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!, The Living Room and The Project is still very much a practicing vet, often suprising his patients’ owners when the 1.96m vet takes their case.
“I studied for a long time to be a vet and that’s always been my first priority; everything else after that is just a bit of a laugh to be honest,” says Dr Chris, who considers his most important role today as an animal advocate.
Growing up in suburban Newcastle, with mum, dad and two brothers, Chris says his family life seemed normal at the time but in hindsight was, at times, “quite bizarre”. His dad, Dr Graeme Brown, ran the local vet clinic. As such, the Brown home was a sort of half-way house for sick or injured animals. “It wasn’t unusual for a koala to take residence in our shower,” shares Chris, who admits many of his stories sound like Dr Dolittle tales. “Or a wallaby to be recovering in our lounge room, or even a penguin splashing in the family swimming pool.” Wait, what?
“Little penguins are native to Newcastle, and are even found swimming in Sydney Harbour. This particular little penguin had come ashore quite sick and really underweight, so it lived with us for six months while we set up. We had to give it swimming training in our backyard pool, before releasing it back to the ocean.”
It was no surprise that Dr Chris went on to become a vet, but that certainly wasn’t his initial plan. “I was very defiant to not be that person who just blindly followed in their Dad’s footsteps, but it was probably inevitable. Everyone who knew me as a kid would say, ‘You’re going to be a vet, you’re going to be a vet!’ because I was always around animals and loved looking after them. At one point I wanted to become a pilot, but that was difficult because I’m colour blind.”
As we know, Chris did go on to become a vet; and about three years into his career as a practicing vet, he was ‘discovered for TV’ at a Sydney bar in 2003.
“I’d had a really strange week in the vet clinic, where I’d had to perform an emergency surgery on a cat that had been shot, and I’d had to operate on a mouse.” (Yes, a mouse – because, as Chris says, “Everyone loves something, you know.”)
“I’d had this strange week and thought, you know what, I need a beer. So, I went to the pub with my flatmates. At the pub, I got talking to this girl at the bar and, my intentions were very honourable, I was just making conversation with her, telling her my stories from this strange week, and this guy behind me baled me up and said, ‘Mate, what do you really do?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I heard you telling that story about you being a vet, but what do you really do?’ I said, ‘I’m actually a vet!’ He thought I was making up being a vet and all these ridiculous stories to impress this girl!
“He came up to me later in the night and said, ‘Hey, if you really are a vet, here’s my number, call me tomorrow, I want you to do a screen test’. “For all I knew he was trying to pick me up!”
But, curiosity got the better of Dr Chris.
“The challenges of climate change, drought and increased heat mean koalas can’t actually even eat their own food, without needing a hell of a lot of water to dilute out the toxins.”
“I wasn’t chasing a media career, I was enjoying what I was doing,” shares Chris, “but I wanted to know what this guy was on about. I have a very curious mind. I’m fascinated by a lot of things and that desire to find out more about what the world around me is, honestly, what drives me.
“The next week Channel 7 came and filmed me doing what I do at the vet clinic, and another week later I was on Harry’s Practice – so, two weeks after the pub I was on TV. It all felt pretty laid back and just something that might be a little bit of fun on the side.”
Dr Chris did regular pieces for Harry’s Practice, before moving across to Burke’s Backyard, then landing his own show Bondi Vet, in 2008 for Network Ten. That’s when his TV career really soared. In 2010 Dr Chris became a regular guest panellist on The Project, in 2012 he added co-host of The Living Room to his schedule, and in 2015 he became co-host of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!
In late December, Dr Chris and his I’m a Celebrity co-host Julia Morris, their crew and a dozen celebrities including Dr Chris’ good mate and The Living Room co-host Miguel Maestre will fly to the South African jungle for the show’s sixth season.
“Honestly, there are many times in the jungle where we get our 10-second count and I sort of look around this tree house Julia and I are hosting out of, and look across the jungle and see smoke rising from the campfire; we’ve got 12 celebrities in prison in their jungle camp and I look around at the five cameras in the studio and all these lights and I think, ‘How the hell did I get here?’
“I really enjoy this diversity in my life. A few hours later I’ll be off helping out the local vet in the evenings, or running around having little adventures. It just makes a very mixed up but very entertaining and enjoyable existence.”
Joining him in the jungle will be his dad Dr Graeme, who has become a parasite expert. “We have this really awkward situation, where Dad comes over to visit me in the jungle in Africa and all he wants to do is go and collect ticks,” laughs Dr Chris. “One year, the medical staff had strict instructions to remove ticks from celebrities and give them to Graeme Brown,” he laughs. “Dad was collecting this ensemble of celebrity ticks, which he would then analyse. And, you know, if it’s not ticks, it’s worms… I would like to think I’ve ended up relatively normal considering the rather bizarre upbringing I’ve had!”
While his TV career has taken off, and we know him more as a presenter than a vet, Dr Chris’ #1 purpose is still to help animals, using his media presence as a platform to educate and inform around issues impacting animals.
In November, Dr Chris delivered a piece for The Project on the devastation Australia’s recent bushfires have caused to our koala population. He visited Port Macquarie to work in the koala hospital, following the local area’s loss of an estimated 400 koalas. With the koala population sitting at only 80,000, that loss is significant. In an article on his website drool.pet, Chris refers to koalas as our “climate change canary in the coalmine” and puts the loss into human terms – if the same loss happened to the human population it would be 40 million people dead.
“What I find so powerful is that, as Australians we identify so strongly with our wildlife… When international guests arrive, we proudly put a koala into their arms and show it off. I think the time has come where we need to start really respecting these tourism ambassadors and giving them a chance. At the moment, these animals are slowly being phased out by our own willingness to ignore the challenges they’re facing,” says Dr Chris.
“We had to give the little penguin swimming training in our backyard pool, before releasing it back to the ocean.”
“Over the last few years the challenges of climate change, drought and increased heat mean koalas can’t actually even eat their own food, without needing a hell of a lot of water to dilute the toxins. Their food is potentially becoming toxic.
“They’re kind of becoming a victim of our lifestyles and our way of life. We just need to start to include them in the conversation, include their needs in the way we plan ahead for this country of ours. Because otherwise, they’re going to be left behind, and we’ll end up with a country that potentially no longer has its greatest ambassadors.”
Another cause close to Dr Chris’ heart is the wombat. “I was doing an Animal Planet show for the US [Vet Gone Wild] and travelling around the world, treating wildlife in precarious situations, in a different country every week. It was exhausting, but amazing to be working with all the different animals. I’d gone from rhinos to lions and leopards and all sorts of things, but the animal that most shook me throughout the entire series was the bloody wombat. In Australia.
“Around 90% of common wombat populations in Australia are affected by a tiny skin mite that causes wombats to go blind and ultimately itch themselves to death, so I decided to put together a campaign to help save the wombat and put some money into research and treatments for wombats.”
Dr Chris says awareness of these issues is the starting point in developing a solution. Awareness, and raising the funds required to act. Using his website, drool.pet, Dr Chris sells prints of his own photos, mostly of landscapes and animals, taken while travelling the world and treating animals. The monies raised go towards various causes, like working towards a cure for the wombats and saving our koala population.
“I have the ability to inform the public about these issues, and then be an advocate for the plight of animals – and
I take that quite seriously,” says Dr Chris. “I consider it a real privilege, and my favourite part about being in the media.
“I think if I could be that translator – almost coming back to that Dr Dolittle idea – if I can be that translator of the animal world into the human world, then I’ve done my job.”
Read about the threats to our koala and wombat populations, and what you can do to help, at Dr Chris’ website drool.pet. Season 6 of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! airs Sunday, January 5 on Network Ten (WIN).