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Vet med students from across Canada meet Alberta's feral horses

Faculty of Veterinary Medicine hosts unique EcoHealth National Rotation for students from five veterinary schools
September 23, 2015
Fourth-year veterinary medicine students visit an area by Sundre to observe feral horses in the Alberta foothills for their EcoHealth National Rotation, hosted this year by the University of Calgary. Photos by Sandy Bell

Fourth-year veterinary medicine students visit an area by Sundre to observe feral horses in the Alberta foothills for their EcoHealth National Rotation, hosted this year by the University of Calgary. Photos by Sandy Bell

Fourteen Canadian veterinary medicine students take part in a field study in the final week of their elective course in ecosystem health as part of an annual two-week program offered to students at Canada's five veterinary schools.

Fourteen Canadian veterinary medicine students take part in a field study in the final week of their elective course in ecosystem health as part of an annual two-week program offered to students at Canada's five veterinary schools. 

Judit Smits, professor in ecosystem and public health at UCVM (bottom right) headed up the September 2015 rotation at the University of Calgary’s Barrier Lake Field Station.

Judit Smits, professor in ecosystem and public health at UCVM (bottom right) headed up the September 2015 rotation at the University of Calgary’s Barrier Lake Field Station. 

The fresh dusting of mid-September snow in the foothills near Sundre did not dampen the enthusiasm of 14 veterinary medicine students in the final week of their elective course in ecosystem health. Fourth-year students from across Canada hiked through bogs and over fallen trees in search of a feral mare to dart with a contraceptive vaccine.

“I’m from the east coast, so I wasn’t really aware of the feral horses in Alberta issue,” says Kaitlin Fitzpatrick, a student from the Atlantic Veterinary College of the University of Prince Edward Island.

This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was guided by representatives of the non-profit, volunteer-driven Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS). Students also toured the WHOAS facility on one day of the intensive EcoHealth National Rotation, an annual two-week program offered jointly by Canada’s five veterinary schools and hosted this year by the university's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM).

Students' field study at the intersection of animal, human and environmental health

Judit Smits, professor in ecosystem and public health at UCVM, headed the September 2015 rotation at the University of Calgary’s Barrier Lake Field Station. As part of the program, students were given three complex cases to analyze: one being feral horses in the Alberta foothills. In keeping with the One Health philosophy of UCVM, all of these real-life, current issue cases incorporated animal, human and environmental health, and involved multiple stakeholders.

“An important aspect of the course is to strive towards taking a leadership role as a veterinarian in the local community, in pulling together community experts required to best address the question or problem at hand and to work towards a solution that is acceptable to as many stakeholders as possible,” says Smits. 

Bob Henderson, president of WHOAS, says, “It’s a valuable experience for the students to be able to come out here and witness the program, and be able to observe the wild horses to get a better understanding of all the issues that surround them."

Students like Susanna Ogle, a student at UCVM, agree. “We’re being introduced to complex problems that we don’t often see in veterinary medicine as it’s usually clinical cases of individual animal medicine, whereas this is a combination of wildlife, livestock and human interactions,” she says. 

Rotation exposes students to non-traditional veterinary roles 

In addition to understanding the specific problem, the EcoHealth National Rotation provides a valuable opportunity to collaborate with veterinary students and faculty from across the country and to explore their personal career paths through exposure to veterinarians in non-traditional roles.

“It’s a really unique opportunity, one that I probably wouldn’t otherwise get, to collaborate with classmates from other universities and see what their experiences are like through vet school, and then share this together,” says Sarah Edwards, a student from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.

“We’re with students from all over and professors from all over, so we’re getting exposed to even more different viewpoints. It’s also really special to be coming out and seeing things too — hiking and looking for the horses,” says Elizabeth Hodges, a student at UCVM.

To top off an already successful time locating, observing and photographing several feral horse bands, the students and professors witnessed a feral mare being darted with a contraceptive by Bruce Stover, a veterinarian from Didsbury.

It was another One Health day well spent for this next generation of veterinary professionals.