Abigail Cunningham, a first-year veterinary student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). Photo: Christina Weese.
Abigail Cunningham, a first-year veterinary student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). Photo: Christina Weese.

Animals at heart of veterinary student’s life

After constantly pestering her parents, Abigail Cunningham was given her first pony: a small Shetland rescue pony named Princess Leah that eventually became the hero of a book she wrote and published when she was 11 years old.

Cunningham’s favourite childhood pastimes always revolved around animals, and her Shetland pony was only the first in a list of ponies and horses that she would own over the years. All of her spare time during elementary and high school was spent around animals — raising beef 4-H steers and taking on any opportunity to work with horses or cows on her family’s acreage in northwestern British Columbia.

When the family’s annual sleigh ride on a local farm prompted Cunningham’s interest in draft horses, she spent the following summer learning how to harness and drive Percheron and Belgian horses.

“I loved working with the horses,” says Cunningham. “You get to know them as a team and can communicate with them just using a few words. They’re incredibly powerful and being able to work with them and get to know them was an amazing experience.”

Cunningham also spent several years working as a milker on a local dairy farm. Despite the 3 a.m. wake-up time, she loved her job and eventually began training some of the herd’s best cows for public milking demonstrations.

From a young age Cunningham dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but as she got older, she became hesitant about pursuing that career. Her mind changed after studying at Trinity Western University (TWU) near Langley, B.C.

“During my first and second year of an undergraduate biology and chemistry degree, I realized my dream could be attainable,” says Cunningham, now a first-year student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). “I also fell in love with science and learning, and I believed that a natural continuation would be to pursue a professional career in the medical field.” 

In addition to her studies, Cunningham looked for opportunities to advance her personal skills. Activities such as instructing labs, helping with research and joining the literary society enhanced her communication, teamwork and communication skills while providing chances for her to meet new people and have fun.

Abigail Cunningham spent several years working as a milker on a local dairy farm, training some of the herd’s best cows for public milking demonstrations. Supplied photo.
Abigail Cunningham spent several years working as a milker on a local dairy farm, training some of the herd’s best cows for public milking demonstrations. Supplied photo.

To learn more about large animal medicine, Cunningham volunteered with Dr. Herman Geertsma, a veterinarian and owner of Total Equine Veterinary Services in the Langley area. While observing Geertsma at his clinic and on calls throughout the Fraser Valley, she witnessed a variety of cases as well as the daily challenges of a large animal practitioner.

An accomplished violin player, Cunningham also played in the university orchestra and was part of the chapel team — allowing her to carry on her family’s tradition of musical involvement. She had begun playing violin at a young age and eventually joined her parents and an older sibling to tour across B.C. with the Valley Youth Fiddlers.

“Growing up in a very musical family, I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t know how to play the violin,” says Cunningham, who excelled in the troupe. “The group was family to me with some of my best friends and mentors, including both of my violin instructors. It was one of the biggest highlights of my elementary and high school years.”

Since moving to Saskatoon a few months ago for veterinary studies, Cunningham has played music with other classmates, and she looks forward to continuing her involvement with music as often as she can.

Cunningham is enjoying the variety of classes and labs at the WCVM as well as the opportunities to interact with various animals while learning practical handling and examining skills. At this point, Cunningham’s career interests lie in equine medicine and production animal medicine. She anticipates working at a practice that deals primarily with large animals and eventually returning to her home community.

“I’m looking forward to gaining the knowledge to be able to give an informed opinion that can help horse owners and farmers,” says Cunningham. “My experiences with horses and cattle — especially dairy cattle — make me very interested in a career that supports those types of farmers.”