November 13, 1998 Volume 6, Number 6

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Peripatetic veterinarian seeking his place in the world

Thijs Kuiken in his element. A life-long interest in animals that make their home in, on, and near water.

Dirk Kuiken's calling was the sea, and his merchant seaman travels carried him from his native Netherlands to many a distant shore.

Hong Kong. Macau. The Dutch East Indies. Dirk Kuiken rode the tides of life to many of the world's exotic ports.

Dirk's son, Thijs, also loved the sea. But it was animals that made their homes in, on, and near the water that fascinated him more.

The younger Kuiken recently completed his PhD in veterinary pathology at the U of S. His thesis examines the effects of Newcastle Disease on a population of double-crested cormorants that make their nests on islands in Dore Lake, northwest of Waskesiu.

Kuiken spent three summers plying the the lake's waters and shores, inspecting nests, and collecting dead cormorants to see if they had been infected. The disease, which usually strikes birds between one and two months of age, renders the birds lame either in one or both legs and/or in one or both wings. Because this lameness hinders the bird's ability to swim (and thereby, to catch fish) or to fly, it's often fatal.

Thijs Kuiken was born in Hong Kong in 1963 and grew up speaking English. He spent his adolescent years in the Netherlands, however, as the family settled there when his father retired.

Military obligations

From the beginning, the younger Kuiken knew he wanted to study animals. He earned a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Utrecht in 1988 but had to put his formal education aside for nearly two years in order to fulfill his military obligations. At the time, all able-bodied men in the Netherlands still had to complete 18 months of military service.

Because he was already a veterinarian, however, Kuiken never performed any actual 'military' duties beyond basic training. Instead, he was assigned to a laboratory where he conducted research on leptospirosis, a disease that can be transmitted from rodents to humans.

"Officially I was a lieutenant in the Royal Dutch Air Force, but a very small proportion of people are allowed to continue in their field if their work is of benefit to the country," he explains.

After mustering out of the military in 1990, he at first made plans to go to Kenya. "I was interested in the East Coast fever, which affects the African buffalo, eland, and other wildlife. But by chance a colleague of mine put an advertisement on my desk. It was for a job studying marine mammals at the Zoological Society of London. It was past the deadline, but I applied anyway. I got the job."

So he headed to London and spent the next three years as the UK's national coordinator for marine mammal strandings.

"There'd been an outbreak of distemper in seals in 1988 and '89, and thousands of seals in Europe had died. At the time, the British government had no system to deal with strandings."

As the seal carcasses washed up on Britain's shores, people became very concerned about the deaths and the possible spread of disease from toxins in the carcasses. Action had to be taken.

Kuiken's job was to coordinate marine mammal research across the UK and to make sure that the various laboratories received all the samples they needed. He also conducted necropsies (animal autopsies) on stranded seals, porpoises, and dolphins.

It was during his tenure at lhe Zoological Society that Kuiken began to feel that his knowledge of wild animal pathology was too limited.

"I was doing a lot of necropsies on dolphins and porpoises, but I didn't think I had enough skill. I'd had a little training in animal pathology at veterinary college, but they only teach you a little. It's a small part of the overall course.

"I felt that I needed to specialize, particularly in wild animals."

After looking around for the right school to meet his needs, Kuiken ultimately decided on the University or Saskatchewan. He and his wife Annemie arrived in Saskatoon in the summer of 1993 and he began his PhD studies in the fall.

Lots of wildlife

"Saskatchewan is unique in that they have a very good facility, good funding, and they're in an area with lots of wildlife," he says. "The University also has a long history of looking at wild animals."

The WCVM is also headquarters for the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre, a nationwide chain of laboratories dedicated to monitoring the health of Canada's wildlife.

The Kuikens are packing their bags once again - this time for Prince Edward Island, where Thijs has accepted a one-year teaching appointment at the Atlantic Veterinary College, UPEI, in Charlottetown.

Beyond that, he's uncertain about where he and his family will go next. Annemie has a masters degree in animal science from the University of Reading (UK), and she hopes eventually to find work, too. The couple has one daughter, Anna, age three.

"I'm not sure if we'll stay in Canada or not," he says. "It would be nice, but my wife does miss the Netherlands.

"Because my father was in the merchant navy, we moved around a lot. I don't really have roots anywhere. But my wife grew up in the Netherlands, and her family still lives there,so she has a strong attachment. We haven't decided."

- Keith Solomon

On Campus News is published by the Office of Communications, University of Saskatchewan.
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