Left to right: Dr. Gillian Muir, Dr. Heather Fenton, Dr. Cheryl Sangster and Dr. Karrie Rose. Submitted photo.
Left to right: Dr. Gillian Muir, Dr. Heather Fenton, Dr. Cheryl Sangster and Dr. Karrie Rose. Submitted photo.

USask veterinary graduates pursue wildlife pathology in Sydney

Three veterinary graduates of the University of Saskatchewan (USask) never thought they would find themselves living “Down Under” and working in wildlife pathology.

Drs. Karrie Rose (DVM’91), Cheryl Sangster (DVM’04) and Heather Fenton (DVM’08) all had an interest in wildlife and pathology during their studies at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). 

While the three veterinary professionals come from different backgrounds, they now work for Taronga Conservation Society Australia, a not-for-profit organization that runs Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, where they care for zoo animals as well as the country’s wildlife populations. 

“They’re just an impressive team,” says WCVM Dean Dr. Gillian Muir, who is also a graduate of the college (DVM’88). “I was just so proud to be a WCVM alumnus along with them.”

Muir travelled to Australia and New Zealand in February 2023 as part of a six-week leave during which she visited veterinary schools in the two countries. Before leaving, Muir spoke with veterinary pathologist and WCVM professor Dr. Trent Bollinger, who is also the regional director of the Western/Northern Region of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC).

Bollinger recommended that Muir contact Rose, who manages the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health — a program of Taronga Conservation Society Australia. Before attending the WCVM, Rose worked for one of her biology professors — a job that gave her hands-on experience with hawks and burrowing owls.

“The very first day of vet school, I found a wildlife and exotic medicine society and I thought, ‘I can do both,’” says Rose. “To have a teaching college where the professors were so positive and encouraging was incredible.”

After graduating from the WCVM and earning the Faculty Gold Medal (the college’s highest honour for veterinary students), Rose completed a Doctor of Veterinary Science degree in comparative medicine and pathology at the Toronto Zoo and the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.  

In the late 1990s, Rose secured a job in conservation at the Auckland Zoo in New Zealand. After about two years, she began filling locum positions up and down the east coast of Australia. In 1998, she made her way to the Taronga Zoo, where she found lots of fascinating wildlife. Twenty-five years later, Rose is still based at the zoo where she loves how each day is unpredictable. 

“It’s that variety, just rolling with whatever happens. It’s fantastic,” says Rose. 

Unfortunately, there are many challenges facing the diverse wildlife in Australia.

“So many species, over the time that I’ve been here, have gone from being really common to being threatened, endangered or critically endangered,” says Rose. “It’s because the threats are numerous and compounding. Habitat and climate, land use and water use changes, competition for resources, invasive species — and then we get infectious disease in the mix as well.”

“Koalas are on the brink of being lost, primarily through habitat loss by human degradation of the habitat,” says Sangster, one of Rose’s colleagues at Taronga Conservation Society Australia. “Then you throw on top of that, mega fires in 2019 and 2020. [During those years], Australia lost to fires … areas the size of small European countries.”

“Australia has had a number of really harsh wildfires that have destroyed habitat and animals because of their scale,” adds Fenton, a wildlife veterinary pathologist and a fellow colleague to Rose and Sangster.

“More recently, there’s been a lot of flooding as well. So, it’s either wildfire season or flooding. In response to the flooding, we’re predicting that there’s going to be increases in mosquito-borne viruses, for instance.”

Fenton, who began working with Taronga in October 2022, had an interest in wildlife long before she applied to attend the WCVM.

“I’ve always had a strong interest in applying veterinary medicine to conservation principles,” says Fenton, who pursued her veterinary pathology training at the Atlantic Veterinary College on the University of Prince Edward Island campus.

Since then, she’s worked in the Northwest Territories, Georgia in the southeastern U.S., and St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean. 

“I think my early exposure to pathology, there’s a very strong pathology department at the WCVM, was important for helping me recognize that pathology was a good career path for me,” says Fenton.

She adds that her opportunities with the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Pathology, the college’s pathology club as well as access to pathology rounds were extremely important. In addition, she worked several summers as a research student with Drs. Emily Jenkins, Catherine Soos, Todd Shury, Judit Smits, and Ted Leighton.

Fenton credits her mentors, Drs. Gary Wobeser and Leighton, two WCVM veterinary pathologists who co-founded the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre (now known as the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative).

In addition to the weather events affecting wild animals in Australia, Fenton says that everyday events such as vehicle collisions have had a significant impact on wildlife.

Introduced animals like feral cats, foxes and bullfrogs — along with emerging diseases — can also have negative impacts on species native to Australia.

“What we do is identify patterns and emerging pathogens,” says Fenton. “We’re looking specifically for new pathogens that could have impacts on human or domestic species.”

Fenton gives the example of Hendra virus, a highly infectious illness that can be fatal to horses and humans. Affected people can develop fever, muscle pains, headaches and more. This bat-borne disease has made its way from its host species to horses and eventually to people through contact with habitat destruction — an important precursor to spill-over to other species.

Australia is also at risk for exotic diseases such as foot and mouth disease and African swine fever. As well, with Australia being such a hot country, the climate change extremes are hitting harder there, says Sangster. 

“With smaller mammals, birds and insects, the loss is pretty profound,” says Sangster.

Sangster, who works as a diagnostic veterinary pathologist, has lived in Sydney since 2008. After completing her veterinary degree, Sangster stayed on for another three years at the WCVM to complete a residency in anatomic pathology.

“I had grown up on a rural property observing deer and looking at birds, so it just seemed quite a natural fit,” says Sangster. “I did my residency [at the WCVM] with the most fantastic, renowned wildlife pathologists in the world. Learning from them was fantastic." 

In her current role, Sangster particularly enjoys working with the vast wildlife that are native to Australia. 

“The wildlife, like marsupials, are fabulous. They’re just so different from Canadian wildlife which I love as well,” says Sangster, who works on a casual basis at Taronga in addition to working with Australian wildlife in various capacities. “The terrestrial wildlife here is smaller. The biggest animal we get is a male red kangaroo [which] would be about 80 kilograms (about 176 pounds).”

Fenton, Rose and Sangster enjoyed meeting Muir during her visit in Australia and catching up on the veterinary college’s plans for the future. 

“It was really an honour to spend time with the new dean during her visit here,” says Fenton. “It’s nice to maintain a connection to WCVM and Saskatchewan.”

Based on her own career, Rose has some advice for current veterinary students: you can do and be anything that you want. 

“I think comparative veterinary pathology is a field where there’s a huge need for … trained and qualified individuals,” adds Rose. “There are roles around the world for anybody who was interested in following that path into diagnostic sciences.”

“[They’re] a great example of the impact that our grads can have globally,” says Muir. “I’m hoping that their amazing careers inspire some of the WCVM’s new grads to do that kind of work.”


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