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Safeguarding Wildlife, Securing the Future

Dr. Scarlett Magda, OVC 2009 DVM graduate and founder and president of Veterinarians International (VI).It wasn’t what Scarlett Magda expected when she begged her University of Guelph adviser Kerry Lissmore to allow her to spend one of her fourth year veterinary college rotations with a non-profit organization in Uganda.

The Ontario Veterinary College student stepped off the plane to find that all of the organization members were on Christmas vacation. She was alone and solely responsible for training local vets’ assistants to care for hundreds of goats in a program to provide goat milk and income to families who had lost husbands and fathers to AIDS.

By day, she travelled along rural roads in a 4×4 truck, visiting the families. At night, she Skyped with her supervisor in Canada before falling asleep on a mattress on the office floor.

“I would call my supervisor kind of freaking out,” says Magda with a soft laugh. “I was doing castrations and other medical procedures for the first time. It definitely made me step up my game and forced me to apply the skills I had learned.”

Looking back, the U of G alumna realizes this daunting experience gave her the autonomy and confidence she needed to help her get to where she is today, as a respected small-animal veterinarian and the founder and president of Veterinarians International (VI).

Based in Manhattan, the volunteer-driven organization aims to improve the lives of people in developing countries through the concept of “one health.”

Along with a team of 12 veterinarians and 17 volunteers stationed around the world, Magda works with existing organizations to better the health of animals in ways that in turn better the health of humans and the environment.

“By improving the health of animals, we are improving the health of humans,” she says. “People are infected with diseases transferred from animals more than any other source. We need to have healthy animals in order to have healthy people.”

Established in 2014, Veterinarians International runs programs in Kenya, Chile, Guatemala and Thailand.

“We send trained vets to these areas with a focus on educating the local vets and animal health workers so that when we leave they are still able to look after the situation.”

In Marsabit County, Kenya the organization is doing work similar to what Magda did during her vet student stint in Uganda. VI members are working with an existing program that provides goats to women, whose husbands have been lost to AIDS or conflict, enabling these women to feed and support their families. VI teaches local animal health-care workers how to care for the goats, and also trains those workers to teach the families about how to tend and breed the animals.

“I Know How Fragile And Traumatized Our Planet Is. It’s A Huge Concern.”

Education is also the focus of two programs in Valdivia, Chile and Chuchumatan, Guatemala where VI members work with local groups to prevent the transmission of tapeworms and rabies respectively, from dogs to humans. Pet owners learn proper pet hygiene and care including use of a dog leash. Vaccinations and sterilization programs are also part of the project to help prevent the dogs from contracting diseases.

In Surin, Thailand, the organization works to improve the health and welfare of elephants used in the tourism industry. VI members are specifically working with some 200 elephants living in a government-funded reserve.

“Elephants used for tourism or other work were making their way to Bangkok where they would beg for food and sleep in alleys,” said Magda. “The government decided they couldn’t have elephants in the city so it created a space for them to live with their owners.”

VI funds Thai veterinarians to teach owners how to properly care for the animals. Owners learn how to introduce the elephants to the forest and how to socialize with other elephants – experiences that are foreign to these animals that have spent most of their lives tied to chains no longer than a couple of metres long.

As part of this initiative, the organization recently set up two mobile vet clinics to provide medical care for the elephants.

The official launch of these clinics in May 2017 attracted the attention of world-renowned veterinarians, elephant trainers and animal welfare experts. The first-ever positive reinforcement training workshop followed the launch.

“I didn’t realize all these people would gather together from around the world for this launch and for the workshop. It was a revolutionary moment for elephants and how humans treat them.”

For Magda, the event validated her belief that improving the health and welfare of animals is a vital part of healing the planet as a whole.

“I know how fragile and traumatized our planet is. It’s a huge concern of mine. Knowing I can help on some level to improve the planet is what keeps me going.”

(Story by Deirdre Healey originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of the University of Guelph Portico magazine – Read the entire The Guardians article on the U of G Portico website.)

Dr. Scarlett Magda is returning to U of G as the alumni speaker at the annual Last Lecture event at War Memorial Hall, Thursday, April 4 at 5:45 p.m. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.  Learn more and RSVP here.