Island upbringing inspired student's love of animals

First-year veterinary student Reina Fennell grew up surrounded by trees and ocean on an island in Haida Gwaii, a remote chain of islands on the British Columbia coast.

She describes herself as an island kid who grew up practically living outside – on the ocean and in the woods.

“I was grounded, I was safe, I was home. My childhood on Haida Gwaii and my incredibly supportive family rooted me in a way that’s enabled me to be a confident, growing individual, no matter what environment I end up in,” says Fennell, who is now in Saskatoon at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). She began the four-year veterinary program in August 2017.

Fennell’s infatuation with all types of animals began when she was only two years old and got her first dog Noni. Her menagerie grew to include guinea pigs, fish and a flock of ducks and laying hens. Her family nicknamed her Dr. Doolittle when she began grinding up weeds and chicken feed for medicine while walking around with her pet hen Thunder perched on her shoulder.

Although Fennell loved her animals, she longed to have her own horse. She kept a peanut butter jar for coins labelled “Horse Fund,” and she read every piece of information she could find on the subject of horse husbandry. 

“I ran around with a skipping rope clicking my tongue at the chickens pretending I was on the back of a horse, and I’d throw little bits of equine knowledge into conversation with my parents whenever I could,” she says.

Her parents eventually tired of buying her horse models and horse books and decided to give her the real thing when she turned 11 years old. That’s when Shadow, a four-year-old thoroughbred-quarter horse-Arabian gelding, came into Fennell’s life.

It was the beginning of a relationship that had many ups and downs, but Fennell is grateful for the hard work that made the connection even more valuable to her. She spent hours researching and learning how to train Shadow using the natural horsemanship training philosophy – a training method that she still passionately supports.  

Although Fennell had always wanted to be a veterinarian, she remained open to other career options and even spent time exploring other possibilities such as human medicine, the nutrition sciences and physiotherapy. When she found out about Vets Without Borders and Christian Veterinary Mission, she realized she could combine her desire to travel and her interest in human health with a career in veterinary medicine.

“My excitement to become a vet one day was refuelled, and I was even more determined,” says Fennell. “Although I probably wouldn’t end up a ‘traditional’ veterinarian, I’d be able to pursue both my academic and lifestyle interests as well as have a medium for doing some really good things in the world.”

Fennell jumped on every opportunity to expand her horizons and acquire the skills that would help prepare her for veterinary medicine. In addition to volunteering with her church, she shadowed the local veterinarian, worked at a diverse range of summer jobs and embraced experiences such as bungee jumping, fishing and scuba diving.

After high school she spent a year travelling – an opportunity to explore and get more valuable experience while volunteering on farms through the Farm Helpers in New Zealand program.  

Fennell then spent two years at Dalhousie University where she belonged to the English equitation division of the Dalhousie equestrian team. She also sought volunteer experiences on Nova Scotia farms through an online source called HelpX. She has since volunteered on farms on both west and east coasts and welcomes the chance to learn while connecting with new people.

Fennell points out that she was greatly influenced by the isolated setting in which she grew up.

“I was able to learn diverse skills and engage in so many dynamic activities that gave me the mentality of ‘try, try and try again’ when it comes to learning new things,” Fennell explains. “Through my education as a distance learner, I also had to find my own resources and solve problems independently. I think I’ll find that the mental and physical discipline and the independent problem solving that I’ve developed will be applicable to whatever facet of veterinary medicine I end up in.”

As Fennell considers her future in the veterinary profession, she envisions several possibilities that include the human health-animal health interface, large animal and wildlife medicine, Christian Veterinary Mission, Vets Without Borders and food animal-wildlife zoonosis projects through Parks Canada.

“I don’t think I’ll settle down for a while after graduation. I’d like to work abroad as well as jump around Canada as a locum vet gaining experience at different practices,” says Fennell. “I’m open to new opportunities and ideas as they crop up, and I think the next four years will hone my professional interests in a way that I cannot foresee right now.”

Share this story