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Veterinary student Kiran Fong spent the summer of 2019 as part of Mark Sutherland's crew on the chuckwagon racing circuit. Photo: Dina Sutherland.

From ‘wallflower cats’ to racehorses, Fong cares for them all

The American Kennel Club’s Breed Identification Guide isn’t a common bestseller in the kids’ book section, but for Kiran Fong, memorizing the guide’s contents was something that occupied her for hours while growing up in Calgary, Alta.

Fong’s choice of reading material probably wasn’t that surprising since she’d been telling everyone she was going to be an animal doctor from the time she was four years old.

As soon as she was old enough, she and her mom started working as cat care volunteers at Cochrane and Area Humane Society. Fong particularly enjoyed spending extra time with the “wallflower cats,” the cats that were very stressed and unsure of themselves.

“Many of my favourite cats over the years have been wallflowers,” says Fong. “I love seeing their personalities come out once the volunteers build up their trust in people. It’s also very rewarding to see long-term residents, usually with behavioural or medical issues, go home with families that are open to working on the issues.”  

Fong and her twin brother also spent hours at the Calgary Zoo and especially liked going there on the cold or rainy days when the animals were usually more active and visible.

By the time she was in high school, Fong had volunteered at a junior camp at Butterfield Acres, a hobby farm and petting zoo, and she was a regular volunteer at the Cochrane and Area Humane Society (CAHS) where she cared for the cats as well as dogs and exotic species. During the society’s education summer camps, she helped teach kids about the proper handling and health of animals.

On the advice of her family’s veterinarian who grew up in the Maritimes, Fong attended Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., where she completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Bioveterinary Science.

“As a ‘city kid’ I didn’t have much opportunity to work with large animals, and the agriculture campus in Truro [N.S.], offers amazing opportunities to gain handling experience and learn about health and physiology of livestock species,” says Fong, now a first-year student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

In addition to participating in campus events such as College Royal, a 4-H livestock show hosted by the students, Fong volunteered at Central Nova Animal Hospital in Truro, N.S., for three and a half years.

She appreciated the mentorship she received from the small animal clinic’s veterinarians and registered veterinary technologists.

“I really enjoyed how welcoming the team was and how many of the veterinarians knew their clients well,” says Fong. “I think this has motivated me to focus on human interactions once I work in clinics — getting to know individuals better even if they only come in once a year.”

 

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Veterinary student Kiran Fong leads two racehorses belonging to chuckwagon driver Mark Sutherland's barn. Photo: Dina Sutherland.

While Fong continued to volunteer at CAHS when she was back in Calgary for the summer, she decided to supplement her animal handling experience by finding a summer job that involved horses.

After a phone interview, she flew up to Grand Prairie, Alta., and met Mark Sutherland and his chuckwagon racing team at their first race location. She spent the rest of the summer travelling and working as a barn hand for Sutherland Racing — a job that had a steep learning curve for someone with little experience in handling horses.

“It was a leap of faith on both of our parts,” says Fong. “There were a lot of physical challenges — long days, lots of heavy lifting and lots of stepped-on toes. But I loved that each horse has an individual personality, and it was really special to watch them interact with their buddies and the other horses in the corrals every day.”

Fong also enjoyed the chance to work behind the scenes with the veterinary team during the Calgary Stampede — an opportunity for her to ask lots of questions as she helped the equine specialists with any treatments that Sutherland’s racehorses needed.

Now that Fong is attending classes at the WCVM, she looks forward to learning more about diseases and treatments in the coming years, and she’s excited about the animal handling experiences she’ll have through the various clubs she has joined.

Although she’s not sure what area of veterinary medicine interests her the most, she does find surgery appealing, especially since she likes working with her hands and doing small detailed tasks.

“The veterinarian who I shadowed the most [at Central Nova Animal Hospital] dealt with quite a few orthopedic surgeries, and that piqued my interest in the subject,” says Fong. “Orthopedic surgery is especially interesting because I’ve seen what a difference it can make in the quality of life for some animals.”

While private practice, specialized training and research are all possible options for her future, Fong plans to continue seeking new experiences at the WCVM. She’s also thankful that she’s already gained exposure to a number of industries and perspectives.

“I think that [those experiences] help me to appreciate the diversity of backgrounds of the people in this program,” says Fong. “They also opened my eyes to a lot more opportunities than I first thought there were when I started pursuing this career path.”

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