Several years ago, I noticed some Facebook posts raving about a Small Flock Poultry Health Management workshop. In 2019 it was being offered in various communities and I couldn’t believe my good fortune when the facilitators, veterinarians Dr Vicki Bowes and Dr Tony Redford from the Animal Health Centre, offered the training here. I excitedly rustled up more attendees so we’d have a full house for the day-long event.
I took notes and asked questions and studied the manual that was given out, as part of the swag package, at the end of the day. I asked Vicki if I could send her some DIY necropsy photos for her opinion on a diagnosis, which she generously provided. Over the next two years I sent six birds to the lab for a necropsy and she was always accommodating in answering my questions. I’ve tried to reign in my enthusiasm, as my instinct is to have her on speed-dial to bounce ideas off as someone with years of training in poultry medicine.
Vicki emailed me recently, opening with “hello fellow clucklehead”. She’s planning to transition from a long tenure at the Lab to starting a small flock consulting practice on my little island, Gabriola (pop. 4400). As part of the accreditation process she’s required to do some site visits to demonstrate the scope of practice of a potential caseload. I jumped at the chance and once she was here I had a few more questions to ask. In hindsight, I wish I was better prepared, but did my best considering the short notice of her visit.
Several months ago she extended an invitation to visit her new in-house lab once completed. When she dropped by, I upped the ante by roping her into sitting down for an interview when she was back, a few weeks later (and, as it turns out, another follow-up visit shortly after that).
What does someone like me, a chicken enthusiast love to do? Talk chickens, of course. I’m an educator by trade and often find myself the most knowledgeable person in the room in my subject area. It’s a satisfying feeling as it represents the culmination of years in my field. But I also value being the person who has lots to learn from those more experienced than me. Both situations – either as teacher or student – are meaningful. In this case, I was stoked to have the opportunity to spend time with someone with a wealth of expertise. I endeavor to present science-based information on my blog, but I recognize my limitations: I am not a vet and didn’t take any science courses beyond high school. I’m a self-taught layperson, seeking to learn as much about chickens as I can.
For those of you not in the know, or not into chickens, let me explain the significance of having Vicki’s undivided attention for six hours. Envision your favourite performer or author sitting across from you yakking in a collegial way about your shared passion. You know those quizzes in which folks are asked which famous person do you want to meet? Hands down, I’d want to meet an expert Avian Vet who’s had a lifetime of experience with poultry. The chance to nerd out about chickens with a luminary meant I could scratch one goal off my bucket list.
On an overcast day I drove down her long, very winding, wooded driveway to arrive at a cliff top house overlooking the ocean with views of the mountains on the Lower Mainland. Three bouncy Labrador Retrievers greeted me. Vicki forewarned me of their exuberance, but I was prepared, as I have a furry greeter of my own. She always wants to have two dogs, which of course, sometimes requires one in reserve. After a few licks and snuffles, the pups went to their respective beds for a power nap.
We found out that we’re about the same age and grew up in the same area of Toronto. In our mid-teenage years, I moved to the suburbs with my mum (which at that point was still surrounded by pockets of farm land), while Vicki’s family headed to a community 100kms/62miles north of the city. They created a subsistence farm with dogs, goats, horses, pigs, ducks, geese, and of course, chickens. She describes her younger self as a quirky introvert who always took the window seat in school so she could look out at the birds. I can relate to her fascination with such fragile, yet robust, animals capable of flight. Like Darwin, she was interested in their adaptation to the environment.
Vicki went to Guelph University for a B.Sc. in Biochemistry. The prerequisite for the veterinary program was at least two years of a science program, but she did the full four. Admissions required a broad spectrum of related experience, so she got a placement with two pathologists at a satellite lab. Her job, which would have been my dream job at that age, was to prepare specimens for their museum displays. Vicki got to make formalin-filled, plexiglass containers and study the oddities, like two-headed calves. When chickens would come in for a necropsy, the pathologists would flip a coin, with the loser having to deal with them. Their reticence to work on the birds piqued her interest and she learned how to open up the bodies and look for abnormalities. That seminal experience shaped her future vocation.
She then applied to the Ontario Veterinary College, the oldest vet school in Canada. The dean of the Pathology department put in a good word, knowing of her genuine interest. Four years later, Vicki was a full-fledged DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine). There are five such programs in Canada – graduates are mammalian vets that require further training to work with avian species. She went on to earn a Master’s degree in Avian Pathology, which encompasses all types of birds: wild, pet, zoo and poultry.
During Vicki’s grad school days she was living in an old stone farmhouse on 99 acres. Her plan had been to continue on to a PhD with the intention of becoming a professor or researcher. Commuting into campus she realized that she loved living on the farm. The idea of pursuing further education was ditched for the option of working off her student debt. Vicki took a position as a Diagnostic Avian Pathologist in Winnipeg and worked on the weekends at an emergency vet clinic. If you’ve never been to that neck of the woods it’s home to long, cold winters and she started to get squirrelly halfway through a two-year contract.
Serendipity struck: the Ministry of Agriculture’s Animal Health Centre in Abbottsford scouted her to interview for a brand new Avian Pathologist position. Flying from the prairies to the west coast, over the mountains, might have been incentive enough to leave ‘Winterpeg’. To her surprise, Vicki was offered the job at the end of the interview.
Her 31 years at the Lab were described as two years of anxiety and panic attacks, followed by ten years of learning in order to reach a level of mastery, based on confidence, intuition and experience. The location of the Lab is not coincidental; it’s in the heart of the highest concentration of commercial poultry farms in the province, so much of her work has been focused there: diagnostics, pathology, education and disease notification.
Vicki has a particular interest in diseases of production. People have exploited genetic traits in livestock for our benefit, which has had detrimental health impacts on those animals. Her grad work focused on Sudden Death Syndrome in broiler chickens.
In 2003, she was loaned to a lab in California to assist with the outbreak of Newcastle Disease. Vicki did two stints of two weeks, working all day in a biosecure facility, which required showering on entry and exit of the building. In order to avoid that rigmarole to get to the bathroom the vets just peed in the floor drains.
The following year, she worked through the Avian Influenza outbreak, in which 17 million chickens in the Fraser Valley were sent to slaughter to prevent the further spread of the devastating disease. 553 small flocks that were situated within a designated radius of an A.I. positive commercial farm, including Vicki’s, were also culled. It’s ironic that she made that life-changing diagnosis and it was her birds that paid the ultimate price, despite having tested negative for A.I. Since then, she has advocated to protect small flocks from unwarranted culling.
She provided detection, outbreak notification and industry recovery for four outbreaks of Avian Influenza. Her work managing the recovery of, and enhanced biosecurity at, commercial poultry farms meant the next A.I. outbreak a decade later was, essentially, a non-event. The first person to publish on the A.I. outbreak, Vicki’s presented on the subject in England, Italy, Ecuador and the USA, and is internationally recognized as an expert on the subject.
Another time, she dealt with a botulism outbreak in wild birds. Traveling on an airboat they had to scoop up dead and dying waterfowl, euthanizing the ones who weren’t going to survive. Not only was the water filled with affected birds, but also leeches that attached themselves to the birds’ third eyelid to suck their blood. By the end of the day the boat was full of a combination of corpses and leeches.
Her career has been a combination of a stellar education and being at the right place at the right time. She took a passion for birds and grew it into a career filled with some incredible milestones. Vicki’s still only one of a handful of accredited Poultry Vets in Canada and the only Canadian pathologist to have diagnosed through a lab submission, all of the serious federally reportable poultry diseases.
She’s a Board Certified Poultry Veterinarian, accredited in the USA and was a recent Director of the science-based American Association of Avian Pathologists (AAAP). She was the inaugural Chair of the AAAP Small Flock Committee whose mandate is to provide a credible information resource for non-poultry veterinarians. That work is ongoing.
We yakked about chickens for so long it took a while to get around to her connection with Gabriola. Her personal ad “Simone de Beauvoir looking for her Sartre” netted her a date, and quite quickly, marriage at age 39 to Bruce, a burly film editor. The way she talked about him might spark a twinge of envy in some folks upon hearing of their deep connection and passion. She dismissed the concept of soul mates, but being a romantic at heart, it sure sounded like it to me.
Bruce developed a degenerative spinal condition, forcing him to give up his work. He soldiered through chronic pain, managing without narcotics, and made the best of his situation. At age 50, with no prior experience, he decided he wanted to learn to play the guitar and be an artist. Bruce built both art and music studios, took lessons and joined an art collective, in that order. A big Neil Young fan, he amassed a collection of 11 guitars. Once his identity as an artist was established, Bruce suggested they move to Gabriola, dubbed the ‘Isle of the Arts’. Until that time, Vicki had imagined herself working at the Lab until she keeled over at her microscope. She warmed to the idea, planning to keep her job and commute via floatplane for as long as feasible.
In 2010 the couple started coming here every few months looking for a property. Sadly, they never got to buy their dream home. Bruce died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism in 2015. I wondered if she had second thoughts about following through on their plans, but Vicki felt that his death made the dream more real and became the catalyst to finally buy a property here.
After Bruce’s death, Vicki sold their house, paid off the mortgage and purchased here. She mentioned that my property – an old homestead – was more her style, but immediately thought of him when she first walked into that house and envisioned him there. It’s more than she wanted or requires, feeling it’s less humble than she is. Vicki still feels married to Bruce and the property is a tangible reminder of their days together.
For three years she’s held both places. The current arrangement with the new owner is she can stay until she’s ready to relocate and upon leaving she can take what she wants from the house and garden, and any outbuildings, including Bruce’s studios. Of course, she doesn’t need two more outbuildings, but the plan is to move the studios and amalgamate them into one – again, another touchstone of their fifteen years together.
Throughout university her sideline was buying and selling vintage clothes. Vicki still loves a bargain, retro patterns and buttons. She used to sell at the St Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto and at clothing shows in Washington state. There’s a studio on the property, earmarked as the new home of her vast collection of vintage sewing patterns, some of which she sells through an online store.
When she came to my place Vicki quipped that she “may not always have a husband, but I’ll always have chickens”. Technically that’s not quite true. After keeping chickens for decades a raccoon wiped out the last of her flock about a year ago and she’s taking a break until fully settled here. With each visit she brings more of her possessions, but the final move hasn’t been set.
After 25 years as the lone Avian Pathologist at the Lab, Vicki’s been joined by a new crop of vets with an interest in birds. There is still no specialist Avian Vet or Avian Pathology training in Canada. Most pathologists focus on mammals and work with wildlife or for zoos, so those with an avian interest must train on the job.
It’s a field that has advanced with the science and she still loves to use the microscope to open a secret world and apply some detective work to read the slides. She’s had a big impact on the poultry world for both commercial and small flock keepers. I know a number of people who have sent their birds from across the province to the lab for Vicki’s expertise. Her presence will be missed, but she feels the Lab is in good hands.
The vet consulting practice will be a new chapter, not a leaving, but rather going towards something new. No longer will her expertise be used to support commercial operations to be more efficient and to make more money, but to assist small flock owners to improve the health of their chickens, turkeys, ducks or geese. The experience she gained on the commercial side informs her work with small flocks. Her hope is to reconnect with the reason she became a veterinarian in the first place; to honour that special connection that people have with their birds.
There’s a cool little lab set up in her home, but the practice, named Small Flock Poultry Health Services, will be strictly mobile with no clinic visits. The focus will be on providing education, medications, vaccines, cytology, parasitology and euthanasia both on Gabriola and Vancouver Islands. She’ll be able to test for pathogens like Mycoplasmas and Coryza, which are on the rise in small flocks, as well as assist in managing outbreaks. Clients will be referred to other vets for clinical support of individual birds. The consulting practice will be available on the weekends when she’s here, starting in the fall.
When I considered going to graduate school my mother volunteered to be my Sherpa, and carry my bags during fieldwork, as we shared an interest in travel and anthropology. In that same vein, I offer my services to carry Vicki’s equipment in the hope that I would absorb some expertise via osmosis.
What chicken enthusiast wouldn’t love any opportunity to spend time with a luminary in the poultry world? I know many of you will be envious, but you’ll have to live vicariously through my experience. I’ve been collecting DIY necropsy photos from Bitchin’ Chickens followers with the goal of finding a diagnosis or cause of death of their birds. Apparently I haven’t worn out my welcome yet and am stoked that Vicki has invited me back next week to study the images as both a learning experience for me and to relay to provide closure for those curious owners. I’ll do my best to represent us small flock keepers and any newfound knowledge will be reported back here in the spirit of our collective education and improving the health of our flocks.
Stay tuned for more news about Vicki’s Small Flock Poultry Health Services and any nuggets of chicken wisdom I can pass on to you cluckleheads.
Many thanks to Vicki for her time, and sharing her photos, stories and expertise.