Volunteering with the Canadian Animal Assistance Team

Working as a volunteer veterinarian has opened both my eyes and my heart. Let me explain. For me, veterinary medicine is about relationships. Our relationship with animals, our relationship with the people that own those animals and our relationship with our team. As the saying goes, it’s not “rocket science” but I would argue managing relationships is often more complex than launching a rocket. People are challenging AND yet, as COVID-19 has so dramatically shown us, we need each other. More specifically, we need to be part of a community to feel connected, happy and fulfilled.

Throughout my veterinary career, I have had the good fortune to volunteer internationally with many organizations in many countries. I started the journey into volunteering for reasons that were “all about me”. To escape the pressures of private practice and hospital ownership. As a way to travel cheaply and experience new parts of the world. A chance to grow my surgical skills. Volunteering in remote communities without access to familiar drugs, supplies and protocols is not for everyone but if you are willing to embrace a place of not knowing and challenge your biases it offers the opportunity to grow in ways you never anticipated.

I learned about the Canadian Animal Assistance Team or CAAT shortly after its formation in 2005. Initially formed in response to the overwhelming need for veterinary care following Hurricane Katrina CAAT has evolved to:

  • Provide animal health care clinics for dogs and cats in underserved communities in Canada
  • Partner with communities and provide resources to create sustainable solutions to pet population management that meets the needs of the community

Back in 2005, I was busy growing a veterinary practice, a family and we were in the planning stages of building a new veterinary facility to meet the needs of our growing clientele and staff. While I dreamt of volunteering with CAAT my day to day reality kept this dream relegated to a special file marked “maybe someday”.

Fast forward 12 years to the sale of our veterinary practice and the new reality I found myself in – one where I had both space and the time to pull out that “maybe someday file” and start sorting through its dusty contents. I watched for upcoming trips, applied, waited…. and was not selected. Undeterred I kept sending in applications. Then in 2019, the stars aligned not once but twice. In June I was selected to participate as a veterinarian on a pilot project in Bella Coola, BC and in September I was invited to join the team heading to Pangnirtung, Nunavut.

Volunteers June 2019 Bella Coola Pilot Project

Every volunteer project forces me into the mindset of a learner – a humbling place to visit. No longer a team leader, I step back and simply offer my skills as a team member. Old habits are hard to break, however, as I observe the project leaders in action paying particular attention to the traits and behaviours they exhibit and the techniques used to quickly build an effective, high functioning team. I have met leaders who I would describe as the “glue” that brings out the best in people and creates a fun cohesive and supportive team, the type I love being a part of. I have also met leaders who allow their ego and biases to create divisions and hierarchy, losing sight of the project’s bigger purpose. As a result, I am now much more selective about the projects with which I volunteer. Good leadership, values of collaboration, inclusion, cultural sensitivity, sustainability and a desire to co-create or partner with the local community are criteria essential to this type of work.

Caught with my mouth open… go figure! Consulting with clients in Bella Coola

The Canadian Animal Assistance Team checks all the boxes and then some. Following a long day of setting up our makeshift veterinary hospital in the public works building at the local school, I watched as our project leader hosted a team meeting. The next morning, clients would arrive for a spay/neuter clinic and this was an opportunity to discuss our protocols, workflow, and volunteer roles. What was special about this team meeting, at least for me, was the focus on expected behaviours or a code of ethics, in addition to the procedural plan. Expectations for volunteers was clearly articulated. We were reminded that we were guests in this community and our behaviour, language and professionalism reflected on the organization and its future success. We were reminded to be solution-focused, non-judgemental and culturally sensitive in our work and our interactions with clients. The Canadian Animal Assistance team has my whole-hearted support. It is an honour to work with an organization where leadership models the behaviour they expect from volunteers and “walks the talk”. An organization that wants to build bridges of understanding and strong relationships with the communities they serve. An attitude essential to making sustainable and meaningful change in these remote and underserved communities.

CAAT Volunteers in Pangnirtung, Nunavut

While it has been fun to volunteer with so many worthwhile organizations around the world, the opportunity to volunteer in Canadian communities has been especially meaningful. It has pulled off the blinders and allowed me to see my countries history with new eyes. Slowly what started as “all about me” has become all about relationships, connection and community. As I wait impatiently (and sometimes anxiously) to see where we land on the other side of COVID-19, I entertain myself with memories of projects past and anticipate the joy of working with this great group of Canadian volunteers once again in the not too distant future.