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Helene Van Doninck: Hilden woman leaves a legacy of care and compassion


Whether it was an eagle or a pigeon, Helene Van Doninck did everything possible to save the life in front of her.

The veterinarian, who ran the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, made many positive changes in the world during her lifetime and her legacy lives on in many ways.

Van Doninck died Aug. 10, at the age of 52, after a battle with ovarian cancer.

“We built this place together and she wanted the organization to continue,” said her husband, Murdo Messer.

“Our goal is to collect our thoughts and figure out how to move forward without her. Once we figure that out, we’ll take animals in again.”

Messer met Van Doninck, who grew up in New Waterford, when she was working as a small animal veterinarian in Newfoundland.

“People would bring in wild animals and ask for help, and she would care for them,” he said. “She often took them home. Her passion for animals was paramount. She had a duck in the tub and starlings in the bedroom, and it grew from that.”

The couple opened the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre on their Hilden property in 2001. At first, it consisted of a few small buildings, with most of the basement also being used for wildlife care.

Van Doninck’s vision for the centre included a flyway, which would enable birds of prey to strengthen their flight muscles before being released. After several years of fundraising and donations a flyway they nicknamed “The Big Jeezley” opened in 2014.

A building for the care and housing of wildlife was also added.

“I was always amazed,” said Messer. “She’d be walking across the yard when an animal came in and the focus on how to make it better was there. She was in doctor mode.

“Every single animal was important. Some people would say it’s only a pigeon or starling, but life is important to that one individual animal, and she valued their lives.

“She didn’t want them to suffer, but if they had a chance she’d give it to them.”

Although most of Van Doninck’s patients were birds, the creatures she cared for also included fox kits, porcupines, groundhogs, turtles, snakes, and a few rodents.

She was an expert on the treatment of oiled birds, and shared her knowledge with many people.

“She gave us an amazing gift for the time she was here, because you make the biggest changes through education,” said Hope Swinemar, who runs Hope for Wildlife. “She did a great job at getting the word out and getting the public to care.”

Several years ago, when Swinemar was managing a Dartmouth veterinary clinic, she hired Van Doninck.

“I got to know her and her passion for wildlife. When we went away on a conference we shared a room, and we’ve kept in touch through the years.

“She’s missed because she’s an amazing and wonderful lady, and because she played an incredible role in wildlife rehab.”

Van Doninck treated several birds of prey for lead poisoning, and she travelled around the Maritimes to encourage hunters and anglers to switch to non- lead ammunition and tackle.

She also spread the message on the importance of keeping cats indoors, both for their own safety and to protect small birds.

Earlier this year, she received the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Humane Award.

“She was one of the most caring and ethical people I’ve ever known,” added Messer. If she was asked to do something she felt was wrong, she wouldn’t do it.

“Helene and I were on a long journey together and I’m going to miss her a lot.”

Donations in Van Doninck’s memory can be made to the centre online.

Eagles in The Big Jeezley can be seen on the live cam

lynn.curwin@trurodaily.com

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