Working 12+ hour shifts outdoors in bitter Northern winter temperatures of minus 45 degrees, would send most school leavers shuddering under their duvets, but not Agcarm’s most recent scholarship winner, Gemma Neve. The Massey University student, originally from Australia’s iconic Bondi beach, not only embraced the challenge of working with huskies in Finland but thrived on it. Realising “an obsession with the North and the Northern Lights”, she secured a winter job-stay at a husky farm in Lapland. “Within a week, run ragged by long days with no sunlight, feeding 250 dogs, running dog teams and constantly wiggling my toes to slow the frostbite down,” she says she knew she was staying.
The dogs and the wilderness captivated Gemma and her initial three-month stint at Hetta Huskies kennel farm turned into five years – braving every winter there. Initially employed as a dog handler, Gemma soon progressed to guiding dogsled tours and being responsible for clients and dogs in her sole care for up to five days. “I enjoyed introducing people from all over the world to the wilderness. It was a lot of responsibility. You would go from one hut to the next, with all the gear.” She spent some summers travelling, including two stints working for a New Zealand sled dog company in the Cardrona Valley.
Taking on the challenge of managing the health, welfare and nutrition of 250 sled dogs in her second year at the kennel, located in the far north of Finland – high in the Arctic Circle, Gemma started running and documenting health checks. Part of her role included checking nipples and testicles for frostbite, assessing the dogs’ nutritional needs and ensuring they were in optimal health. Developing close relationships with the “local” vets was vital for maintaining supplies of medicines and equipment needed for stitching and stapling wounds, as the nearest vets were 300 km away. In turn, the vets would ring the farm to ask for her help, as there were no technicians or vet nurses at the clinic. She had no qualms about holding organs and helping with caesareans as well as anaesthetics during operations. On her days off, she would research nutrition and wound management. Her dedication to the welfare of the canines is commended by her former employer, who claims that it was instrumental in the kennel receiving the Gold Award for the animal welfare category of the 2015 World Responsible Tourism Awards.
After training an endurance team of sled dogs in Alaska, for the Yukon Quest – a 1,000-mile endurance sled dog race in North America, Gemma decided to take the next step in her journey. Having always known that she wanted to be a vet and feeling the need to clarify her career, she enrolled in the Veterinary Science degree at Massey University. This, she says, is “a bit more sustainable than husky guiding because it took its toll. It was just plucking up the courage to leave what I was doing.”
The big adjustment she faces is having to spend so much time indoors. “It’s such a change – living in the wilderness with these dogs and a team and now I’m sitting at my desk.”
Her experiences have helped her learn “theoretically” and in a more formal way. She loves relating her studies to her work experiences in Finland, the USA and New Zealand but admits that there is still “so much more to learn”.
When she hasn’t got her head in a book or isn’t working at her local supermarket, the third-year student plays football for her local team in Peka Peka, North of Wellington. Surfing and walking her two retired Finish huskies on the beach are also favourite pastimes. But “vet school takes up most of my life”.
Her volunteer work includes a season as a teacher and activity helper at the Nea Kavala Refugee Camp Polykastro in Greece – the busiest gateway to Europe, with refugees arriving from Afghanistan, Syria, Congo, Iraq and Palestine, and helping with collection drives for the SPCA in the Kapiti Coast.
The 25-year-old will use her windfall, valued at $2,500, to help pay for her practical veterinary placements, required as part of her degree. Agcarm chief executive, Mark Ross, says that the association is proud to be contributing to the future of such a committed student and wishes her well in her career. “Her application was outstanding, and our panel was impressed with her work ethic and the initiative she demonstrates in her work and academic life,” he says.
After her studies, Gemma sees herself working in a mixed rural practice, and eventually hopes to spend some more time working in the international sled dog sector. “I want to continue the animal welfare trend that I was into overseas”. There is a “lot of scope” for this in farming. “I greatly appreciate the role of the veterinarian in protecting animals, society and the planet we share, and also respect the role of the pharmaceutical industry in this mission. I look forward to incorporating these diverse interests into a professional career promoting responsible farming and animal production as we head into an era of significant environmental and ethical debates.” The issues in the production industry put some people off, but “I find that flawed”. Gemma wants to play her part in” leading positive change in animal welfare” for the “big challenges that my generation will face”.
“I want to see how all those things fit together and see what’s possible to make the farming environment and climate more sustainable.”