Dr. Helene Van Doninck

Class of ‘88
Alumni Volunteer of the Year 2015

Alumna Helene Van Doninck dedicates her life and every ounce of her spare time to helping others. Quite often, the “others” have four legs, fur or feathers. Dr. Van Doninck exemplifies a passion for animal husbandry that knows no boundaries and a strong desire to share her knowledge and skills with others.

Passionate about animals since her early days in New Waterford, Nova Scotia, Helene chose to study pre-veterinary medicine at NSAC, and graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the Atlantic Veterinary College in 1991. However, while working at a veterinary practice in Newfoundland in the years following her graduation, Helene realized her true calling: helping injured and orphaned wildlife.

Helene came to recognize that help for individual wild animals was not readily available. She began caring for animals that came into the clinic on her own time. But this wasn’t enough.

In 2001, Helene and her husband, Murdo Messer, founded the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre from the ground up. The centre is a sanctuary for wildlife and is located on the property of their home in Hilden, Nova Scotia. Helene’s team, made up entirely of volunteers, works tirelessly to rehabilitate and care for the animals that come through the centre, with the goal of releasing all back into the wild. In addition, the organization strives to educate the public about wildlife concerns, most notably the issue of lead poisoning in bald eagles. Through awareness campaigns and presentations, Helene has persuaded many hunters to switch to non-lead ammunition, saving the lives of both birds and potentially humans who consume wild meat that could otherwise have contained lead.

Despite the fact their facility runs solely on donations and fundraising, Helene and Murdo manage to provide state-of-the-art care to roughly 300 animals every year. The Bald Eagle Flight Recovery Centre, the first of its kind in Canada, is a large oval-shaped cage which allows eagles to fly freely during their rehabilitation. A number of large cages on Helene’s property allow wildlife to roam at liberty with limited human interaction. The cages replicate the animal’s wild habitats, allowing them to exercise their natural instincts and ensuring their survival in the wild upon release.

As if running the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre weren’t enough to fill her schedule, Helene also works part-time at a number of clinics in Nova Scotia. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge and expertise with others, and so gives various seminars through Zoetis, a global animal wellness company dedicated to delivering quality medicines, vaccines and knowledge to businesses and their clients.

Dr. Van Doninck is an avid member of many different non-profit organizations. She is a member of the Nova Scotia Bird Society where she sits on the board of directors. She also works as an Oiled Wildlife Response and Emergency Preparedness Consultant/Trainer. In this role, she works with various companies, organizations, institutions, government agencies and individuals to help train for oiled wildlife prevention and response. Her training in oil spill response has enabled her to respond to many oil spills in Canada and USA to provide care and rehabilitation for affected wildlife.

Dr. Van Doninck has impacted hundreds of students here at the Dalhousie Faculty of Agriculture. For eight years, Helene was a lecturer and surgical skills instructor in both the Animal Health Technology and Veterinary Technology programs. She has been welcomed as a guest lecturer for several degree courses such as Avian Biology, Companion Animal Nutrition, Companion Animal Behaviour and Aquatic Ecology. Helene currently teaches a few days a month at AVC. She inspires students to work hard to reach their goals despite any odds that may be against them, and is a real-life example of what can be accomplished when passion and skills combine.  

Helene’s accomplishments, her career and her impact on the people and community around her are what make her more than deserving of the Faculty of Agriculture’s Alumni Volunteer of the Year award for 2015.