Imagine the scene:
A December morning in Paris, 9 a.m. The sun is big, and it’s not cold outside. The streets are quite empty, almost no noise, which is a strange thing in my beautiful city. In a moment, I have a meeting in a coffee shop. I choose a quiet table for our interview. The setting is nice, inviting for a conversation. I wonder how this will go. I am a little bit nervous.
Not long after my arrival I am joined by my guest: Hélène Gateau. I am not surprised to see that she is just as welcoming as she is on screen. It is now time to order something to drink. No guys, just tea for us (what else were we going to drink so early in the morning ?!). We start to talk. I like when interviews are not too formal, and I can gladly say that on that day, it was not. I discovered a charming human being, who truly loves her work, cares about animals, and seems to enjoy her life tremendously. And now, let’s go back to that morning in Paris…
When I ask how this passion for animals was born, she answers, “It started when I was young. I grew up in the countryside, always surrounded by animals. I spent a lot of time playing outside with my friends. We even founded a club, ‘The Nature’s friends club’.” To that you can imagine I smile. I want to know more. “My sister was around seven and I was around ten. With friends in the district we use to walk around looking for animals like caterpillars. This passion has been there for a long time.”
Of course, it’s a natural choice for someone who likes animal to work with them. Gateau says, “Lots of kids want to be veterinarians. I wanted to be that too. It stuck with me. Never left. As I was pretty good in school I manage to do what I wanted — work with animals.” I wonder if she ever wanted to do any other kind of work with animals. “No, I really wanted to be a veterinarian. I wanted to work with dogs and cats, not wild animals like tigers or lions. I wanted to work in a city clinic, and that is what I did in Neuilly, (near Paris).”
But for someone who lived in the countryside near nature, the city is not always ideal : “After a few years I started to get a little bored. I was always in the consultation room, I needed a change. I closed my practice and decided to do something else.” That something else was a business school, which led her to work in the pharmaceutical world for a few years.
So how does a former veterinarian, newly graduated from business school start to work on tv? “It was always my dream. Being a veterinarian on TV, I mean. It was a dream of mine for a long long time.”
An unusual dream, I think, and even more unusual that she actually managed to achieve her dream. “One of my friends went to a diner one night, and there were people he did not know. One of the guests was in fact someone working on TV. She was preparing ‘Midi en France’, and explained that they were still looking for animators. They had no one for the animal section, so my friend gave her my contact information. I was asked for an interview, and at the end they told me that I had the job! They asked me to be ready to leave soon for the shooting, on the roads of France.”
It was a very sudden change of life. “I told them it’s all very nice but I have a job, a contract, I know nothing about TV. I was anxious. Will I be good? Will I know how to do it all? But then I thought that I had just turned thirty, and that it was a once in a lifetime chance. So I said yes. I took the job. I stayed five years there. And I had a great time. And after that ‘Hélène et les animaux’ came along, and I left the show.”
‘Hélène et les animaux,’ we are now at the heart of the conversation. After all, I wanted to meet her to know more about her work on the show. How was it born How is it to meet so many incredible people? And she answers all that very kindly, and more often that not, with humor. “I actually wrote the concept for the show and presented the project. They wanted to shoot a pilot right away. At the time there was nothing about animals on the air, so I guess it was the right moment. And it led to three seasons of meetings, and beautiful adventures.” It was another sudden start for Hélène. “At some point I was doing two shows at the same time. Sundays and Mondays on ‘Midi en France; and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays on ‘Hélène et les Animaux’. It was intense, but it was a wonderful experience.”
I have to ask what her memories are of those moments. “It was incredible. Actually, now that I am not doing it anymore (the show was cancelled after three seasons), I happen to find myself dreaming of those meetings at night. Re-living what we lived with those people and the animals they take care of. I truly miss meeting people and learning about their work. I miss the contact with nature. I live in Paris so…” And what about the men and women she crossed paths with? “They are so welcoming. I mean, you have to imagine that it’s not just me going to their homes, but we are seven in the team. Sometimes when we arrive it’s raining or whatever, and we are quite a group, and yet they still receive us very kindly. They open their doors, their hearts, their intimacy. We share a meal or a drink. It’s incredibly generous of them to give us their time.”
I wonder if she has a favorite out of all the meetings and adventures. “I met a woman named Charlène. She created a center for llamas where she receive children with difficulties at school, or people with disabilities. There, I assisted in some magical moments. I remember a man named Paul. He has a mental disability and he comes every two weeks I think. What I saw between him and the llama he is paired with when he comes, was just amazing. In those moments you can feel the power that animals can have, what they can bring to us, and to people with disabilities or facing challenging situations. Animals never judge.”
“It’s crazy what animals can do. Some people are not capable of any form of communication, yet with animals, they communicate. Something happens. That is fascinating to me. Zootherapy is incredible.”
I understand that therapy with animals is something very close to her heart. She knows a lot about it, and she tells me something I did not know. “In Canada they have a therapy program with horses for former soldiers. The soldiers have seen so much, went through so much that they don’t really fit in when they come back. People have a hard time getting them. But with horses, it helps. It’s a kind of rehabilitation through animals you could say. Apparently, the results are amazing. The good thing is that it’s supported by the minister of Health, It’s great! In France we don’t have that kind of support from the government, and it’s too bad because it works.” I ask her why she thinks it’s working so well, and to that she says, “Animals are a link to some very profound part in us. We are animals, deep down. It’s were we come from, but in our society we forget it.”
“It is taboo to say it. We try to erase this side in us, the part with primary instincts, raw emotions, and I guess that when we are with animals, that’s something they take out of us. It comes back. And that’s closer to our original nature, it’s only good to let it out once in a while.” I am also a definite believer in these kinds of therapy and could not agree with Hélène more. I think animals speak to us without words, touching our souls directly. Quite a dialogue!
Another subject I want to speak to her about is the place of animals today. I feel that they are another product of consumption and I want to know what she thinks about it. “Today we have a dog because it’s in style, like Chihuahuas for example. We might dress them, or carry them in our arms, but even so, they are still dogs! We don’t respect their needs when we do those things. A dog is not a toy. It’s another being. I am kind of frightened by those habits. I don’t really understand that. We might act this way because we lost touch with our animal side. But, we are making them more like us.” I agree with bits of that myself, I wish we could stop the “consumption of pets”. I wonder if it could it be changed with education? “I think it’s a possibility. We could help people have awareness at an earlier age. I don’t remember having that kind of class though. I think that children have lost a link with nature today. We have to take them out, let them explore, go into the forest for a walk or in parks. With all the technology we have, they are way more exposed to screens than to nature.”
Speaking of nature I wonder if she has regular contact with animals outside of her work. Dogs, cats, horse riding? “I never took lessons to do horse riding, and you can see me in some of the episodes of ‘Hélène et les animaux’ and you can see that I am not very good at it. I should start! I had a dog, but he passed away two years ago, and since I have such a busy life I did not want to adopt another. I know their needs too well to inflict my way of life on a dog. But I miss having one so much. I am very frustrated (she laughs), and so when I see a dog I am like ‘Awww!’ What I miss the most is the look in their eyes. My dog was a Jack Russel, and a lot happened in his eyes. We always think that we know our animals well, but you have to understand that dogs spend their all lives looking at you. As a result, they know you a lot better than you know them, and we don’t know how much they get us. My dog Roots was a very intelligent dog. He was beautiful, had muscles. Of course he was my dog so he was the best.” At that point we are both laughing. “He was the animal version of Brad Pitt then,” I say. “Exactly. A lot happened in his eyes. He made me laugh a lot. I miss having that contact with animals. It’s a non-judgmental look, it’s something I miss a lot.”
Having covered all of this, there is a question that I need to ask. What are her future plans? “I will be returning in January to my family of ‘Midi en France’. They are changing the show a little so I’ll be back again. I am also working on a documentary about zootherapy. And I am writing a book right now, it should be out next fall.” She talks to me a little about the book, but I definitely would not want to spoil the surprise. Sorry, I am going to keep my mouth shut. One hint though: you are going to like it so keep your eyes open!
She then told me this “I’m working on other things but it’s too soon to talk about them. It’s just that when I saw all the support on the Facebook page, when I saw the messages, I was so touched, I was not expecting this at all. I knew that I had an audience, and I know they were following the show, but when I saw all this support it helped me to go through it all. So when I see all this I think, and I hope it’s not too presumptuous, but I think that I cannot let them down. I truly want to come back and offer something new. It will always be centered on animals of course, and the link between us and them, but in a different way. So I am working on that right now.” I am sure all the fans of ‘Hélène et les animaux ; will be pleased to know that she will not disappear for too long. And actually she is already back in ‘Midi en France’.
Shortly after this, it is time to end our conversation. We have talked about so many things that I have totally lost track of time.
I wish the very best to this bubbly, intelligent, and kind TV host, former veterinarian, and partner in laughter for a tea time.
You can catch Hélène et Les Animaux on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on TV5.