Rooted is all about the people and the places that make us proud to call our community home.
Rescuing animals has been a lifelong calling for Naila Aqbal.
“Since I was little, I have always had a magnetism that drew me to animals. I remember being 5 years old with rabbits in our backyard. I would try to feed them carrots even though they were wild. I always gravitated towards animals. They brought me a sense of calmness,” she says.
Although her parents did not always share that enthusiasm.
“My dad is allergic to animal dander, so the only things I was allowed to bring into the home and keep were snails or a small amphibian. Eventually, my mom would make me go put it back outside.”
But it was that need to oversee an animals' well-being that stuck with Aqbal her whole life, leading her to becoming a Registered Vet Technician.
Originally from Afghanistan, Aqbal and her family fled because of the war in 1999 and have lived in Canada ever since.
“We first lived in Toronto when we arrived in Canada, but then we moved a lot. We went to Windsor, to Tecumseh, and eventually to North Bay, which is where I have lived for over half my life now,” says Aqbal.
Sticking with northern Ontario living after high school, Aqbal got accepted to the Veterinary Assistance program at Northern College.
“I did really well there and that made me want to get into the Veterinary Technician side of things. That is where you get further into the medicinal aspect of animal care,” she says.
“I had to ensure I had all my chemistry, biology and math courses done in high school. I wasn’t that strong in math, but was much better in biology. I actually have two learning disabilities, but I always tell people those things should not stop you. With practice, consistency and hard work, you can overcome those things.”
Aqbal says she loved the Vet Tech program, although it came with a great deal of difficulty.
“In one semester I had 12 courses. My diploma for two years studying in college was more difficult than getting my degree in Biology in university. On top of the 12 courses, we also had kennel duty. That means I had to be at school at 6 a.m., and for two hours you’re basically working and doing husbandry,” she says.
Aqbal describes the work as cleaning out litter boxes for cats and walking dogs, among other things. She says some days, the students were working through 16-hour days.
“Between the kennel duty in the morning, class at 8:30 a.m. through to 5:30 p.m. and then another kennel duty shift after that,” she says.
“I saw people drop the program after that first kennel duty shift because it was too much for them to handle, and I completely understand that.”
Aqbal emphasizes to anyone wanting to pursue this as a career that you have to be willing to sacrifice and look at the big picture.
“If you can keep that end goal in your mind, whether you want to help animals or advance yourself in your medical career, just don’t give up. I think if you truly do want something, you are going to put in that effort no matter how difficult it gets.”
It’s a pursuit that has taken Aqbal across the globe. For her programs’ placement, she applied for an international student program called Animal Experience International which placed her in Nairobi, Kenya, which Aqbal says was a bucket list location for her.
“Since watching the Lion King, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to go there one day and see the Lions in real life.”’
Aqbal says through Animal Experience International, she did a one-month placement at a shelter called KSPCA, where they performed spays and neuters, but details the experience saw more than just that operation.
“I went to one of Africa’s biggest slums where we had to retrieve a dog that was stabbed in the chest and thrown into a dump,” says Aqbal.
“This is a place where people live below the poverty line. People didn’t have shoes, some babies didn’t have clothing, and your toilet was a plastic bag. We retrieved this dog and unfortunately, it was already nearly dead, but near this dog was a female that we guessed was its mate. The female had a large mammary tumour on her teet. We brought her to the shelter and we had to euthanize the male. After operating on the female, we found an abdominal hernia as well and she passed away during the surgery.”
Aqbal says she learned so much on the medicinal side.
“There was a time I had to euthanize 21 cats due to either severe respiratory infection, or because they were extremely feral and could not be re-homed. I also had to euthanize six dogs that were all rabies positive. I came across some diseases that affect animals there, which we don’t see in Canada because we have a relatively healthy animal population compared to Kenya. Not to say animals don’t face cruelty here, but it was certainly eye opening to see the difference between a first world and developing country.”
After she graduated in 2017, Aqbal applied immediately to go to Nipissing University to get her undergrad.
“I chose Nipissing because it is a smaller school. I really liked having that one-on-one connection with my professors. They were absolutely amazing. I never felt like I was a burden to them or that I was just a number; they truly and genuinely care about you and your academic career,” she says.
During her first summer, Aqbal decided to go to Mexico to keep up on her clinical practice because, “It is very easy to forget all that knowledge if it's not something you’re consistently doing.”
Through that same program Aqbal went to Aguascalientes and worked with a center called APA (Amigos Pro Animal).
“This was a clinic very similar to the one in Kenya, where we focused on spaying and neutering cats and dogs,” she says.
“In Mexico, we were doing things like getting kittens out of a gutter. We had to put down an opossum that had a fractured skull after some kids attacked it with a baseball bat. There was a dog that I did a bandage change on for six weeks after it was hit by a car. When he was brought in, the bone on his leg was exposed but by the end of the six weeks he was able to walk again on that leg.”
Aqbal says despite the sometimes gruesome and heartbreaking results they face in the field, at the end of the day, rescuing animals truly remains a passion.
“If this is your passion and you can’t see yourself not working with animals, then you’re going to find a way to accept the good and the bad that comes with it,” she says.
“Animals are innocent. They cannot speak for themselves. In this line of work, you are their advocate. To me it's not a burden. I see it as an honour to be able to care for animals and do what we can to help them.”
Aqbal will continue pursuing that passion later this summer as she heads to Ecuador to work at a Vet Clinic and rescue organization there. Her mission is to help as many animals around the globe while gaining more clinical experience.
If you have a story for the "Rooted" series, send Matt an email at [email protected]