Book Review: Through My Eyes: Journey of a Wildlife Veterinarian

CF’s Co-Editor reviews Dr. Michael D. Kock’s book Through My Eyes: Journey of a Wildlife Veterinarian. This eye-filling, readable chronicle of a life well spent seems to confirm what so many Nova, Nature and NatGeo TV shows hint at: That a career in wildlife conservation might just be as rewarding and even romantic as it appears.

Through My Eyes: Journey of a Wildlife Veterinarian. Dr. Michael D. Kock. 2019. IWVS (Africa), Greyton, South Africa. Hardcover, 101/4 by 121/8 inches (26×30 cm), 71/4 pounds (3.3 Kg), 600 pages; with foreword, notes on photography, acknowledgements. ISBN 978-0-620-82883-3. US$100 + $15 shipping from www.through-my-eyes.co.za.

There are veterinarians who look after your auntie’s poodle, and then there are veterinarians who tranquilize, treat and tag wild elephants. And other big, untamed beasts. Mike Kock—Dr. Michael D. Kock, to us ordinary mortals—is one of the latter, and he has the scars to show for it. He also has an extraordinary new book to show for it: Through My Eyes: Journey of a Wildlife Veterinarian is as big as a lasagna pan, weighs more than a magnum of champagne and contains 600 pages splashed with color. By sheer size, heft and eye appeal, it qualifies as a coffee-table book; by content, however, it amounts to a career-counseling text for anyone attracted to wildlife science.

Entertaining though it can be, this is not a book that one reads like a novel, from beginning to end, in bed at night. It’s just too big. The table of contents helps us get our arms around it: After the foreword and introduction, the chapter headings are “UK, USA and Qatar,” “Zimbabwe,” “Botswana,” “Namibia,” “Mozambique,” “South Africa,” “Cameroon—The Savannah,” “Tropical Forest,” “South Sudan,” “Ethiopia,” “Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania.” The book winds up with “A Fishy Story—Around the World in 46 Days” and finally “Land Rovers.”

Yes, a chapter about that other endangered African species, the venerable British Land Rover, nowadays nearly eclipsed—at least in the bush—by the Toyota Land Cruiser. Dr. Kock not only has a sense of humor, he also knows that field scientists do not thrive on just endless sets of data points.

This is a serious book, too. In the foreword, John Hanks, former CEO of the World Wildlife Fund/South Africa and the Peace Parks Foundation, writes: “Through My Eyes has addressed with refreshing courage and an acute awareness that the people who live close to the animals hold the key to their sustainable future. If conservation of these species is to succeed, we must address immediate issues of poverty, high rates of human population growth, accelerating land transformation, the pervasive problems linked to corruption and, above all, the need to educate and mentor the leaders of the future. Michael Kock’s involvement in the innovative AHEAD (Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development) programme since its inception encapsulates his genuine commitment to working with people, as do the many superb photographs of the extraordinary heterogeneity of the communities and individuals he encountered.”

At the far end of the book, on page 593, is a photo of the author in 1990, at the age of 37. At Mana Pools, in Zimbabwe, he is watching a massive elephant bull. A camera with long lens hangs from one shoulder; an FAL rifle is on the other shoulder. The caption reads, in part, “Camera first and rifle only for protection, a supporter of hunting but not a hunter.” By email, Dr. Kock added, “The book has a strong sustainable-use message and challenges orthodoxy in the wildlife and conservation field based on practical experience and knowledge.”

Mike Kock was born in South Africa in 1953, grew up in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), was educated as a veterinarian in the UK and then, in 1976, went to the USA, where his professional life as a wildlife vet began—netting bighorn sheep from helicopters. After a stint in the Middle East, he returned to Africa in 1988. His veterinary career has now spanned 43 years.

Through My Eyes is dense with text and captions. If, as the author believes, a picture “really is worth a thousand words,” the book’s 1,400 photos add another 1.4 million words. The images go back to the days of slide film and continue to the digital present. Had he washed out of the vet business, Dr. Kock could have made a living as a photographer. His pictures capture field operations, people, vehicles, landscapes, equipment, animals (alive, tranquilized or poached), snares, rivers, aircraft and so on and so forth. Some are beautiful, some are gut-wrenching, all are instructive. At the end of each dawn-to-dark session of animal-wrangling, in heat, dust or mud, Dr. Kock was more inclined to down a beer and a meal and fall into bed than to scribble notes, so the extensive photo record of each day’s work was his diary.

IWVS (Africa), the publisher, is International Wildlife Veterinary Services, which normally puts out professional manuals for field vets and biologists. Through My Eyes is available only online; the website provides a close look at the book, too. Social media and groups such as the Wildlife Disease Association, the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians and various wildlife and conservation NGOs have moved the book along briskly. This month, Dr. Kock wraps up a speaking tour in the US and the UK, with more (including talk shows) to come in South Africa, followed by visits to universities as well as vet schools, museums, zoos and hunting organizations. Catch up with him when and where possible; it will be a fascinating talk.