Globe-trotting OVC student gains experience with animals from Iceland to India
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Providing veterinary care for abandoned and stray dogs at a shelter in India seems a world removed from presenting a scientific paper on Icelandic horses to animal behaviour experts gathered from around the world in Japan. But it was all in a summer's work for fourth-year DVM student Kate Sawford, whose globe-trotting this year gave her a chance to extend her clinical and research skills developed at Guelph.
Now back at U of G, where she's begun rotations this semester in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Sawford says her summer abroad has given her a new appreciation for what's right here at home in Canada. And with an eye on graduation day, she says that varied experience has also “made me aware of different opportunities in working and research” — not to mention whetting her appetite for international work.
“I'd always wanted to gain veterinary experience in a developing nation,” says Sawford, who hails from Hamilton and arrived at U of G with a President's Scholarship in 2000.
She had her chance this summer. After spending four weeks working with horses and small animals at a veterinary clinic in Phoenix, she travelled to India for a volunteer stint at an animal shelter in Jaipur. Another DVM student, Lucas Yuricek, also volunteered at the shelter this summer.
Located in Rajasthan province in northwest India, the shelter — called Help in Suffering — runs a number of programs intended to improve living conditions for horses, donkeys, elephants and camels. The program is run by a charitable trust set up in 1980 by a British woman who was appalled by the lack of veterinary or rescue facilities for numerous stray animals living on the streets of India's cities and towns. (Roughly similar to Doctors Without Borders, Help in Suffering operates in India, the United Kingdom, Australia and France.)
Working for the shelter's animal birth control program, Sawford spent her time spaying and neutering street dogs, vaccinating them against rabies and tagging them for release. The program was begun 10 years ago in an effort to control the street dog population and to reduce the number of rabies cases in Jaipur.
“Rabies is a big human health problem,” says Sawford. “There are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 human rabies cases per year in India,” nearly all caused by dog bites. During the last three years, Jaipur has seen no human rabies cases.
In August, Sawford travelled to Japan to speak to the annual conference of the International Society for Applied Ethology about her research on kinship recognition among Icelandic horses.
For the previous two summers, she had worked in Iceland on a project she designed to investigate relationships among horses and, in particular, what factors determine bond formation between individual animals. That kind of information may help managers make better decisions when they place horses in groups, perhaps helping to reduce aggression and injury.
Her studies with collaborators at the University of Iceland suggest that kinship is less important in bonding than other factors. When unfamiliar horses are grouped together, for example, they gravitate toward individuals with the same coat colour their mother had, says Prof. Suzanne Millman, a horse behaviour expert in OVC's Department of Population Medicine. As with many animal species, newborns are believed to imprint on their mothers, she says.
“Maybe there's a link between coat colour and feelings of security,” says Millman, adding that Sawford's findings may apply to other kinds of horses. Particularly for a horse with behavioural problems, she says, “if you knew the coat colour ahead of time and had a choice, chances are this animal might get along better with a horse that was similar to its dam.”
Sawford had contacted Millman after doing summer research work with Prof. David Noakes, Integrative Biology. Noakes has worked with Icelandic researchers and students for about 20 years through exchange programs. Last fall, he helped establish the Iceland-Guelph Institute for teaching and research collaborations with several Icelandic universities, including Hólar University College, home to the International Centre for Icelandic Horses.
Because Iceland maintains a comprehensive pedigree for its all horses, it offered a perfect lab for designing a kinship research study, says Millman. She co-authored the resultant paper with Sawford and Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir of the Iceland University of Education.
Millman had intended to travel to the Japan conference, but she's still mending after breaking her back in a recent fall from a horse. Referring to Sawford's presentation, she says: “For a student at the undergraduate level to go in and give a spoken paper at an international-level meeting is pretty unusual, but it has to do with the strength of the work she did.”
For the future, Sawford is contemplating graduate studies, but says she plans to work in private practice first.
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