It shouldn't happen to a vet, but Matthew Brash has become a reluctant star of reality TV. CATHERINE BRUCE speaks to the Pocklington vet and father of four about life on and off the small screen.

ANAESTHETISING flamingos, giving a baboon a vasectomy and coming face to face with a polar bear may sound like pretty hairy experiences for the average reader.

But for Matthew Brash, the vet for Flamingo Land zoo, near Malton, tackling wild animals is all part of the job.

Star of the new ITV series of Zoo Vet at 7.30pm on Thursdays, Matthew is also a familiar face in Pocklington as the vet at Battle Flatts surgery in Kilnwick Road.

Even before he was invited to become the zoo's vet 11 years ago, his childhood in the Far East meant he was no stranger to exotic creatures. But despite the interest shown in his work at Flamingo Land, Matthew is determined to keep his feet firmly on the ground and not get carried away by the fickle world of celebrity.

He makes it a rule never to watch himself on the small screen and remains unfazed that Zoo Vet is broadcast worldwide.

He said: "The animals and the people come first and the filming comes second. I am a vet not a TV star and I always work on the basis that every series I do will be my last."

Matthew's television career began five years ago with a rather unusual debut performance on Undercover Police, accompanying the RSPCA and Customs and Excise officers on a raid on the home of an alleged parrot smuggler.

But since then TV crews can't seem to get enough of him, and the 39-year-old father of four has appeared in at least five TV series including working alongside fellow vet Trude Mostue in Vets To The Rescue.

Working at the zoo certainly seems to have provided him with plenty of memorable anecdotes and he isn't one to do things by halves. Recently he anaesthetised 99 flamingos in just ten and a half hours so that the zoo could discover what sex they were.

And he had to consult a doctor to find out how to perform a vasectomy and then carry out the procedure on 27 baboons in two days.

But however strange work at the zoo may get, Matthew is clearly a man who loves his job.

He said: "It is so unpredictable. One day I can be dealing with a sealion with a sore tooth and the next giving a 45-year-old chimp a dental check-up."

Matthew, who is married to Claire, a racecourse vet at Malton, travels to Flamingo Land about once a week. But the smaller zoo animals travel to his surgery at Pocklington to be treated so he can spend as much time as he can at his practice.

It would seem likely that dealing with zoo animals would be much more dangerous than looking after people's pets but the worst injury he has received in his work as a vet wasn't from a rhino, a hippo or a tiger - but a rabbit, which bit him across an artery.

Zoos have come in for a fair amount of criticism from animal rights protesters, who argue that keeping wild animals in captivity is cruel.

But Matthew is adamant in his defence of the zoo, which he says plays an important role in conservation.

He said: "A zoo is there for more than entertainment, it's conservation. We have so many rare endangered species at Flamingo Land."

Mentally scrolling through the list of endangered animals, he mentions two female Siberian tigers, who are kept by the zoo for genetic stock in case another zoo needs a tiger in the future, and a pair of white collared mangabeys, two of only 400 of these monkeys in the world, who are kept for breeding.

According to Matthew, one of the main things the zoo is criticised about is that its polar bear, Mandy, lives by herself in an enclosure.

But he says the bear's partner, Marcus, who was rescued with her from a circus in the 1970s, died three years ago and Mandy has never been happier.

"That bear has blossomed since her husband left her. She is coming up to 30, which is incredible. In the wild, she'd have lasted 15 years at the most.

"I am not going to put her to sleep because she's old and alone. That's ageist."

"Everyone has a point of view," he reflected, "but Flamingo Land is very good at research, education and breeding endangered species.

"There are always going to be people who don't like zoos. I would argue that the animals are well looked after. If nothing else, zoos enable you to take a child to see the awesome majesty of a tiger or a rhino.

"Watching a David Attenborough programme will never be the same and not everyone can afford a safari in Africa."

Zoo Vet is at 7.30pm on Thursdays on ITV1.

Updated: 10:47 Friday, May 30, 2003