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Bringing veterinary care to the Far North

A veterinary program developed at UPEI gives students an opportunity to help Northern animals.

BY CHRISTINA CHANT | MAY 03 2010

It started with a query to Jane Magrath, a professor of English at the University of Prince Edward Island, from a friend living in the Nunavut community of Kimmirut. Where, her friend asked, could she get much-needed veterinary care for the community’s dog population? Dr. Magrath took the request to her colleague Lisa Miller, a professor of pathology at UPEI’s Atlantic Veterinary College.

Together the two professors developed the Chinook Project, a unique interdisciplinary venture that provides free veterinary care to isolated communities in the North and an unparalleled educational and cultural experience for participating veterinary students.

Since the project’s inception in 2006, Chinook clinics have been run in the northern communities of Kimmirut, Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk. The 2010 Chinook team (consisting of two volunteer veterinarians, four fourth-year AVC students and an AVC technician) was scheduled to spend six days in May running a veterinary clinic in Natuashish, Labrador.

The temporary clinics established by the Chinook Project are often housed in the local school and provide not just veterinary care but also general animal-welfare education. Local volunteers assist with tasks ranging from translation to surgical preparation while the open-clinic design allows community members to observe surgical procedures, such as spay and neuter operations.

A key aspect of the program is that students keep a private journal during their trip that then forms the basis of a creative non-fiction writing project. “It’s the process of working with those journals later and reflecting on what they wrote that allows the students to develop a certain perspective on what is usually an intense experience,” says Dr. Magrath. “For some students who bravely write about tough things that happened, such as surgeries that didn’t go as expected, the writing is a part of understanding and healing.”

Dr. Magrath hopes eventually to collect these reflections and publish them as a book. In the meantime, both she and Dr. Miller encourage other Canadian veterinary schools to consider developing similar programs. “The Canadian North has so many communities, all of which struggle with canine overpopulation and its attendant problems,” Dr. Magrath explains. “There is so much more we can do to help.”

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