Calgary graduates its first class of vets

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This month will see the graduation of the first class of students from the University of Calgary faculty of veterinary medicine. Congratulations to those students. After four years of intensive study in one of the most difficult of professions, they have made a remarkable achievement. Veterinary medicine is sometimes seen as more difficult to master than human medicine simply because vets have to deal with such a wide variety of species, all with their own distinct anatomies, afflictions and needs.

The vet faculty facilities at the U of C are perhaps some of the best in North America and its approach towards teaching is innovative and progressive. The founders and developers of this faculty had the opportunity to start from scratch and were not constrained by entrenched veterinary medicine teaching attitudes.

Notwithstanding the quality of the graduates and the teaching, the question that now arises is the estimated $80 million of taxpayers’ money spent to create a veterinary school worth the effort. Knowledge and education are always worthwhile endeavours, but the establishment of this expensive faculty did originally have a goal of increasing the supply of large-animal vets for the Alberta livestock industry.

That goal has been achieved with the graduation of the first class of veterinarians, but that increase has been tempered by accreditation hoops, student preferences and the economics of a large-animal veterinary practice. Indications are that many of the newly minted vets will be going into city pet vet practices and research. Those who are going into large-animal practice will see their resilience and dedication severely tested under difficult working and economic conditions — it’s a hard way to make a living. The original goal will probably be achieved, but the new large-animal vets may be the most expensive graduates in veterinary medicine history.

An underlying long-term concern is how many new large-animal vets can a static (perhaps declining) livestock industry actually absorb each year, keeping in mind the vet school in Saskatoon also graduates 20 vets a year from Alberta.

In retrospect it would seem the establishment of the vet faculty at the University of Calgary may have been due more to circumstance and politics rather than an actual need. The decision to establish the school was made during the height of the BSE crisis around six years ago. The idea had been brewing for many years having to do with the shortage of large-animal vets in the countryside. It was felt that if Alberta established its own vet school it could expand the supply of those kinds of vets. However, what was first being discussed at the time was the need to set up a prion institute for research into BSE and related diseases. So in the Machiavellian world of provincial and university politics it was decided that the U of A would get the prion institute and the U of C would get the long-hoped-for veterinary school. Actual need for either facility or funding availability seemed to be overwhelmed by the BSE spectre at the time. Having Shirley McClellan, the deputy premier at the time, and one of the most powerful ministers of agriculture ever, supporting the vet school, probably guaranteed that it would be built.

Politicians and bureaucrats stated that the facility could be established for around $20 million. Others suggested $100 million would be more accurate — that prediction is close to coming true.

The more suitable institution for the vet school would have been the University of Alberta which already had long-established facilities and experience in animal science education and research — veterinary medicine would have been an easy fit. The U of A had the laboratories, the animals, research farms and support staff, all of which could have been used and expanded to include a veterinary faculty. From a cost perspective the U of A was the more logical choice. But never underestimate competing university politics and big-city rivalry to trump the issue of cost, particularly when taxpayer dollars are involved.

Soon after creation of the faculty was underway it was realized that the goal of graduating mostly large-animal veterinarians could not be achieved. That was because the new school had to be accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association. That organization demanded that the new vet school had to offer a full spectrum of studies that included a small (pets) animal major. In retrospect that requirement may have been a blessing.

The reality may well be that the livestock industry can only absorb a limited number of large-animal vets every year. That would mean that some new vets would have had to go into pet vet practice to survive, so it would be valuable to them to have a solid knowledge of small-animal medicine. That’s probably the real reality for the future of the faculty being that as our urban population increases, the urban pet population will increase and the need for pet vets will invariably increase.

In the meantime if a few go into large-animal practices the original goal will have been achieved.

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