Veterinarian Maeve Moorcroft is responsible for all areas of health and welfare for the thousands of animals that pass through the doors of nationwide chain Pets at Home
“Sorry to keep you waiting. My snake is about to shed.” In 25 years of writing this is certainly the most unusual excuse I have ever heard, and Maeve Moorcroft is one of very few people who could get away with it.
Moorcroft is head of pets for Pets at Home, responsible for all areas of health and welfare of the thousands of animals that pass through the doors of the nationwide chain.
I am meeting her the morning after a very difficult evening for both her and Pets at Home: BBC’s Watchdog programme had run a lengthy feature on the health of a few of the pets sold by the store. I thought Pets at Home was going to fare quite well after seeing the first segment, which mostly related to a couple of cases of ringworm in guinea pigs; but the second part involved undercover filming in several stores, showing dead fish in tanks. A few looked like they had been dead for several days.
“We were answering calls until 11pm last night,” Moorcroft says. As we walk around the head office in Wilmslow, Cheshire, it’s clear more are still coming in, and one or two colleagues (you are not allowed to use the word “staff” at Pets at Home, everyone is a colleague) stop Moorcroft for advice or to ask her to talk to the pet owner on the other end of the line.
Moorcroft, who is Irish, qualified as a vet in Dublin in 1990 and spent 10 years working in the Peak District dealing mainly with domestic animals, “with the odd sheep and wildlife emergency thrown in”. She met her husband to be, a shepherd who now runs their farm, after treating one of his sheepdogs on New Year’s Eve, and now has two sons aged seven and five.
Like many vets, Moorcroft found that the long and often unsociable hours of being in practice did not fit well with having a family. She switched to working for a pet product manufacturer as their veterinary adviser, helping to make sure their products were safe and suitable.
Three years ago she moved to Pets at Home, becoming the first vet to hold the position of head of pets, involved in all areas of health and welfare of the company’s pets, fish and reptiles. Among other things, the role involves liaising with suppliers, checking where animals come from, supervising their care in store and overseeing the stores’ adoption centres.
She runs a team of about 10, including specialists in reptiles and fish, and two veterinary nurses working in a support role. Given the size of the company – 80 stores employing about 5,500 people with a turnover of £12m a week – this seems quite a modest number.
Moorcroft spends part of the morning answering emails and calls, mostly from the stores or vets contacting her about animals bought from Pets at Home, and is briefed by her team on the progress of a new range of guides published in association with the RSPCA and the licensing of various stores.
The open-plan office she sits in is like no other I’ve ever visited. There are a couple of dogs meandering between a selection of baskets and bean bags, and nearly every desk includes an aquarium or vivarium holding a wide array of fish, snakes, reptiles and amphibians. Moorcroft’s snake, Jean Genie, sits in a tank on her desk.
She moves on to visit a Stockport store with a specialist aquatic centre and featured prominently in the Watchdog programme. The staff are upset, and there is a high manager-to-colleague ratio on the shop floor to reassure staff and deal with customer inquiries.
While Pets at Home disagreed with some of the points made by the BBC programme, chief executive Nick Wood issued a statement saying the company would review its health check training and the frequency of the checks on its fish tanks.
We meet “Fishy” Pete, a marine biologist who is one of Moorcroft’s team, to inspect the fish: cold water, tropical and marine. The tanks are spotless and the only inverted fish is one which Pete assures me likes being upside down.
Some vets have a poor opinion of pet shops, and until recently the RSPCA has opposed the sale of animals through a shop environment. Has Moorcroft received flack from her veterinary peers for switching over to pet sales? “Veterinary science is a vocation, and I spent all those years in college because I wanted to help animals. Now I’m in a really good position to do that. Yes I’m one step removed, but I can get things in place to make things better,” she says.
Hours Officially 8.30am to 5pm. Five weeks holiday plus bank holidays.
Work-life balance “It’s better than when I was in practice, and getting better still because of my veterinary nurses.”
Salary The average starting salary for a vet can be anything between £21,800 and £33,500 a year, depending on experience. However, further training and experience can increase the average salary to around £36,500. Moorcroft’s salary is equivalent to that of a senior vet, who can earn upwards of £50,000.
Best thing “Getting the chance to influence the health of thousands of animals all around the country.”
Worst thing “Laying awake at 4am, worrying about guinea pigs and rabbits.”