Lone ranger of the animal world reveals some family secrets

Demanding: Hugh Wirth is having to come to terms with Parkinson's disease.
Demanding: Hugh Wirth is having to come to terms with Parkinson's disease.

HUGH Wirth has Parkinson's disease, had a disabled sister who died in an institution, and hasn't spoken to one of his brothers for 40 years.

Despite his high public profile, the Victorian RSPCA president's private life has stayed private, but he has opened up in his new autobiography.

The 73-year-old told The Age that Doctor Hugh: My Life With Animals was a legacy to his family, and he refused to sugar-coat it. ''There's no point in producing a memoir that is biased or altered or not true,'' he said.

Co-written with former Age journalist Anne Crawford, it explains why he never married.

He writes of dating women and of female attention - one client answered the door naked on a house call - but says he's a loner, wedded to his job, and blames his personality.

Dr Wirth said his standards of work and behaviour were too high. ''I am by nature fairly demanding. I'd be entirely irritating to live with,'' he said.

The book tells how his grandfather, George Wirth, migrated to Melbourne from Germany in 1903 and worked as a baker and grocer. But he drank heavily and abused his wife, Ada, before abandoning her and their 10-year-old son Erich, Hugh's father, in 1917.

Dr Wirth says when he grew up, George was rarely spoken of but it explains the determination of Erich - owner of a city dental supplies company - to give his children a happy upbringing in East Ivanhoe.

But there was also tragedy. Hugh's sister, Elizabeth, who had Down syndrome and a hole in the heart, lived in the Janefield Colony for the intellectually disabled in Bundoora for four years before dying in 1954. She was eight; Hugh was 15.

He hadn't seen Elizabeth for several years, but he believes his parents wanted to protect their children from reality.

The book details how a 1971 argument between Dr Wirth and his brother David became a 40-year estrangement, but he hopes they will reconcile.

It documents Dr Wirth's political battles with 1960s RSPCA stalwarts, the Australian Veterinary Association and governments.

He claims the federal government gave in to a push to set up an Animal Welfare Advisory Committee in 1980 when then conservation minister Vasey Houghton fell asleep in a meeting. When he awoke, says Dr Wirth, Mr Houghton asked, ''Now, where were we?'' to which Dr Wirth says he and RSPCA colleague Peter Barber replied: ''Well, Minister, you just agreed to form the AWAC.''

Until 2006 Dr Wirth ran a private practice in Balwyn, watching the area change from semi-rural with cows and horses to suburban with well-off clients' dogs and cats.

On one occasion, one of Dr Wirth's dogs ate a wealthy client's pet canary but she didn't hold a grudge, later donating $6 million to the RSPCA.

Dr Wirth was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2008. He has quit a long-time gig as an inspector at the Royal Melbourne Show because he is no longer so adept at dodging wayward cattle. ''I'm not dying or anything silly like that. I'm just not as good on my feet.''

My Life with Animals is out October 1.

This story Lone ranger of the animal world reveals some family secrets first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.