He has been dubbed the James Herriot of the 21st Centrury, but for television zoo vet Matt Brash, his clients could crush him or trample him within seconds. He tells Lindsay Jennings about some of his escapades.

IT has been another satisfying day for Matt Brash. He has just finished a shift at Flamingo Land zoo near Pickering, in North Yorkshire, where he's operated on a zebra with a bad foot and seen a rhinoceros with a dodgy-looking lump. In between, he's been helping with the penguin chicks. He has the best job in the world, he says.

"There's so much going on," he enthuses. "Our two rhinos have just moved on to Sweden and to another zoo because they're now mature males and we've got two teenage idiots who've just come in, that's rhinos - one's two and one's three..."

Matt, 43, has spent 16 years as Flamingo Land's resident vet and is known to thousands through the ITV television show, Zoo Vet At Large. Over the years, the good-natured animal lover has endured many hairy escapades at the zoo and learnt valuable lessons in how to handle the animals.

"I've certainly learnt how to get out of the way pretty fast," he laughs. One of his scariest moments came when he thought he'd put a 500 kilogram polar bear to sleep before transportation to another zoo. Ignoring general advice not to poke bears, Matt used a trusty implement to test if the animal was asleep - a drain rod - and it appeared that the animal was in the land of Nod. So Matt climbed into his cage and with five other helpers began taping up the bear's muzzle, when it made a low, guttural grumbling sound. As they rolled the bear over, it stood up - causing a mass exodus.

"I thought I was a dead man," recalls Matt. "I really did think my time had come, but you don't stop to think about it, you just turn and run. But then the tiniest of animals have caused the most painful injuries. I once got bitten by a white rabbit on my wrist and it went through a major blood vessel. The owners were saying 'what have you done to our rabbit?' because my blood was all over its white fur."

He has also had to be incredibly enterprising over the years, such as the time a farmer had been losing ostrich chicks to stress because their mother figure, the farmer, couldn't be with them all the time. Matt pinned a pair of blue overalls to a wall with a cardboard cut-out of the farmer's face with Radio 4 on in the background.

"The baby ostriches were fooled and happily went back to eating and growing," he says.

These tales and many more are contained in his new book, Zoo Vet, a light read full of anecdotal titbits about his life with wife, Clare, and their four children - Jack, 12, Charlie, 11, Alfie, eight, and Tiger, six - and, of course, all those animals.

Matt was born in Germany, the youngest of four. His parents were diplomats, so he spent his early years living around the world. His time in Canada aged six kick-started his love of wild animals and one of his earliest memories is of trying to play with a baby brown bear.

"He didn't want to play though and ran up a lamppost. Fortunately, my parents came and grabbed me before mama bear came back," he says.

After Canada the family was posted to Vietnam during the war. He says he could hear the bombs falling, but they were well guarded by Ghurkas. It also gave the potential vet plenty of time to play with the lizards and small insects and develop a love of exotic animals. His parents, however, were initially sceptical about him wanting to be a vet.

"My father thought it was a complete waste of time and thought all I'd end up doing would be putting dogs to sleep and having my hands up the backsides of cows, but he's always been supportive, especially since I decided this was what I wanted to do," he says.

Matt met Clare at veterinary college (she is an established equestrian vet) and he moved up North to be near her in 1991. Television fame beckoned in 1998 when he met television producer Katie Metcalfe while on a parrot smuggling raid and the idea of filming for ITV's Zoo Vet At Large was born. He's since starred in Vets To The Rescue for the BBC and Vets In The Country.

But a major part of his work has always been at his practices in Pocklington, Stamford Bridge, and Strensall near York - a side to his career that he loves.

"A lot of the veterinary work is very similar to what it would have been like in James Herriot's time," he says. "There's a lot of ignorance by owners to do with bad husbandry and diets. But I really do enjoy that bit of talking to people. I can talk for England, I'm afraid."

And he can, too. But he's a joy to interview, full of funny anecdotes and outbursts of laughter but with his feet firmly on the ground. Not that the Yorkshire farmers he works with would let him get above his station. "They're so friendly and, provided they see that you're doing your best, that's it as far as they're concerned," he says. "But I never see myself as being famous or anything. I'd always rather be remembered as a good vet more than anything else."

He never planned to write a book, but certainly seems cheered by the experience and is planning another based on his escapades while training to be a vet. It has brought inevitable comparisons with Alf Wright of Thirsk, alias James Herriot, which he finds humbling.

"I'm quite embarrassed by it in many ways because he was such an idol of mine," he says. "His books really got me through my first few months as a vet and they're just so true.

"But all new vets have to fight for acceptance, you have to prove yourself. I've always believed you have to build up a relationship with the client, so you get to know that the dog is miserable is because the family has 14 children and they poke the hell out of it. It's as much about treating the owner as the dog."

And at least his book has solved the problem of Christmas presents this year.

"My family has always had a tradition of hand-made Christmas presents, so that's that sorted," he says. "In 50 years' time, when my children are grandparents, they can bore their grandchildren about the book their dad wrote - although I expect by then no one will be able to find a copy - like the Yellow Pages advert with JR Hartley and Fly Fishing.

"But it's great fun. That's what life's about isn't it?"

* Zoo Vet by Matt Brash (Shaffron Publishing, £9.99).