Bruce is a best-selling author, clinical veterinarian and co-founder of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. He has recently released Barefoot at the Lake, a memoir of a childhood summer at his family cottage in Ontario, Canada.
“I wanted to become a vet because my best friend was going to study veterinary medicine and I thought it would be fun to go to university with him! He actually dropped out and went into human medicine but I stayed on. I come from a medical family on my mother’s side and it had been assumed I’d go into human medicine, so it wasn’t that big a jump. I’m sure that part of my success is down to me ending up in the UK by accident. I’m from Canada and came to England in 1970 on a scholarship to Regent’s Park Zoo.
I chose the right parents in terms of health – my father lived to 97 and my mother to 100.
The research project at the zoo was only supposed to be for nine months but while I was there I met some vets and one of them offered me a job. His practice had an international reputation so I took him up on it. I was planning on going back to Canada after two years there but then in 1971 a small, but quite attractive woman came into the surgery with her dog. She turned out to be the actress Julia Foster, now my wife. I’d actually seen her at the theatre about three weeks earlier but I didn’t recognise her, I was too focused on the animals! She was playing the role of a free spirit at the time and I think a little bit of the character she was playing rubbed off on her and she had the confidence to invite me out. Ten years ago our son Ben first met his wife Marina in the park with his dog. So there are now two generations who have met their partners over dogs, which is quite extraordinary.
I co-founded Hearing Dogs back in 1982. It came about because I met a wonderful woman Babs [the late Lady Beatrice Wright] who was vice president of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. She was aware that dogs could be trained to act as ears for deaf people and that’s what Hearing Dogs does – it’s the largest charity of its type in the world. It just goes to strengthen my view that dogs and cats serve a significant role in urban life. We evolved over millions of years living with other animals, it’s only the last three generations that have moved into cites and separated ourselves from the natural world.
When Julia and I married we lived just behind Marble Arch but the lease expired and in the early 80s, the only affordable place to move after that was Notting Hill. As a foreigner, if I was going to stay in London, I didn’t want to be in the suburbs. We still live there and it’s great, I can walk to work through Kensington Gardens in half an hour or just jump on the tube for a couple of stops. We also have a place down in Sussex by the coast in Arundel so whenever we can, we’ll drive down there on Friday evenings.
Julia and I have been married for 43 years. There’s never a simple solution to having a happy marriage but neither of us pick fights, and I think that helps. We also take enormous pride in what we are both doing. Julia has had two careers which she’s enjoyed and she was very much the centre of attention for twenty years. Meanwhile, I built up my veterinary business and ended up writing for extra income. Julia later got bored with acting and gravitated into antiques but she’s now come full circle and has just done the Dad’s Army film which is coming out in February.
I chose the right parents in terms of health – my father lived to 97 and my mother to 100. I’d say my age sometimes works to my advantage, people assume I must be knowledgeable because of it – I can get a government minister or even a prime minster to listen to me because I am old. Actually though, in my peer group of vets, I am the baby. I don’t see any reason to retire though I’d probably like to have extra time to do more writing. I’m doing another book at the moment that I would like to make into a Sunday night TV show!
When my mother was dying a year ago, I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to say at her funeral. Her first response was ‘I heard it all on my 100th birthday.’ But then she came out with a few life lessons – the first one was ‘don’t hold grudges.’ I think that’s a good one – life is too enjoyable to waste your time on that. She also said ‘go outside in your bare feet and feel the grass under your toes once in a while’ – basically, to look around every now and then and see how wonderful life is. Finally, she recommended having more sex, which I found quite difficult coming from my own mother! Of course she was right, sex isn’t there simply for sex, it’s there for maintaining bonds and intimacy.
My only regret is that I gave up playing a musical instrument in my early teens. I’m currently getting my old fiddle repaired – when I get it back, I’m just going to play around with it and see what happens!