Animals Are Us
BY TERESA PITMAN
|Thinking big is on Stephen Woeller's agenda as OVC director of advancement. Photo by Martin Schwalbe|
Stephen Woeller, director of advancement at the Ontario Veterinary College, wants people to think bigger.
“When I talk to people about OVC, the first thing most of them think of is their personal connection with animals,” says Woeller. “Dogs and cats are usually first, then horses, then maybe farm animals. So that's where we begin. But I want them to see how OVC works at the intersection of human health, environmental health and animal health. What we do here is so much bigger than most people see.”
Woeller, who joined OVC three years ago, is definitely thinking big.
“The context in which we're raising funds right now is the creation of the Ontario Veterinary Health Sciences Centre, and that will include a number of exciting programs — a primary health-care centre, a medical and surgical complex, an equine performance and reproductive centre, and an animal cancer centre, to name just a few.”
That's bigger, but not as big as Woeller is thinking. What he stresses are the connections between animal health and human and environmental health.
“It can be as simple as the fact that owning a dog will get you to go and walk more, so you become fitter, or that having a dog around will reduce your stress, helping you to stay healthier. Or it can be recognizing, for example, that the animal cancer centre will help us better understand cancer in humans. We are more like dogs than rats. We have dogs coming to OVC that are already sick, so we don't have to make them sick, and because dogs share our environment, they get the same kinds of cancer. Animals are the sentinels for the state of the environment.”
Woeller adds that many of the emerging diseases that people are concerned about — such as avian flu — originate in animals but transfer to humans, so understanding how they affect another species may help us in treating our own. “I spend a lot of my time actively trying to get people to think differently about veterinary science.”
He's able to speak so eloquently about the animal-human bond and the connections to health because he's experienced it himself. Several years ago, wanting to improve his fitness level, he bought a dog. “I found the most beautiful Australian shepherd, Jessie,” he says, “and together we became involved getting fitter. I know how important that link is.”
Building on those animal-human connections is leading to connections of a different kind: between OVC and other fields of study and research at U of G.
“There's great excitement at OVC about working with other parts of the University,” says Woeller. “The cancer centre bonds together everyone working on some aspect of cancer, from biomedical scientists to social scientists. We're sharing what we do across campus and building new relationships that benefit everyone.”
Perhaps the connections also seem so natural to Woeller because he's a U of G graduate, with a 1990 BA in international development that he followed up with a certificate in public relations from Humber College. (His education continues: he's currently midway through an MBA in agribusiness.)
After graduation, he worked in development at Hamilton Health Sciences, then left there to start his own consulting company before returning to U of G.
“OVC is a great fit for me — I love working here,” he says. “And being able to ride my bike to work is a phenomenal asset.”
Although every workday is different, Woeller says most of his time is spent developing relationships. Because he spends so much time talking to people about animals, he's come to think deeply about the issues.
“With most people, you can have conversations about their personal relationships with animals, and it's often a visceral and highly emotional kind of experience. But they can be quite disconnected when it comes to thinking about all the other animal-welfare issues. We live with animals in many ways, we are neighbours of all these animal species, and we are a society that raises animals for food and other purposes. For me, this human-animal bond and how we care for the animals around us have come to be a central feature of how I evaluate a civil society. For the most part, there's a collective shortage of wisdom and caring about the welfare of animals. OVC has a big role to play in helping this evolve.”
His biggest challenge, he finds, is time: finding the time to connect with the people who might be interested in OVC's story.
Woeller's work is also about celebrations. He's looking forward, for example, to 2012 when OVC will turn 150. Right now, he's helping to plan a celebration for the fifth anniversary of Equine Guelph.
Founded in 2003, Equine Guelph is the kind of partnership he gets enthusiastic about: organizations such as the Ontario Equestrian Federation, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ontario Racing Commission and the E.P. Taylor Equine Research Foundation getting together to promote research and education into horse health and well-being.
On Sept. 30, these partners and others interested in the goals of Equine Guelph will celebrate its anniversary at a gala dinner at Tralee Estate near Caledon. The evening will include a gourmet meal and an opportunity to network with other horse enthusiasts and meet “mystery” guests.
Tickets are $175, with all proceeds going to Equine Guelph. For ticket information, send e-mail to email@example.com.
Woeller looks forward to the celebrations, saying: “Talking to donors and potential donors is fun. I'm super proud of what we do at OVC, from helping dogs and cats to sending students to developing countries to support the health of animals there. It's not hard to get people to see the value of our work. ”