The miracle maker: Animal health scholarship named for dedicated vet

Published on August 04, 2020

Carla Cumming Sojonky establishes endowment to improve animal welfare

If Carla Cumming Sojonky could leave a legacy for human – and animal – kind, it would be the humane and ethical treatment of animals. In many ways, her love of animals has made her life all the richer and more meaningful.

“For centuries, humans have greatly underestimated animals – their intelligence, their capacity for emotion, and their sensitivity to pain and suffering,” Carla says. “They can’t speak for themselves, and are often and easily ignored, abused or taken for granted.”

Carla and her husband Frank dedicated years to adopting rescued German shorthaired pointers and to supporting shelters and rescue groups that advocate for animals and help them find safe, healthy homes. Over the years, they supported and fundraised for several animal welfare organizations.

“I believe that it’s really important to dedicate your life to something you believe in and work toward that.”

 Recently, Carla was inspired to create the Dr. Dave Brace Award for Volunteerism in Animal Welfare, a scholarship endowment to support Animal Health Technology students at NAIT. Established in perpetuity, the scholarship is named for the trusted, long-time veterinarian of the Sojonky's beloved dogs – Tavi, Mimi, Rigby, Stella, Chloe, Lily and Pixie.

“I believe that it’s really important to dedicate your life to something you believe in and work toward that,” she says. “I hope future students will continue their work in this field and advocate for the humane treatment of our animal friends.”  

Dr. Dave’s miracles

Having served as a board member for local animal shelters, Carla became known in the community for rescuing German shorthaired pointers. Intelligent and loyal, they are often surrendered by pet owners who lack knowledge about the breed’s need for lots of exercise and mental stimulation. She was also shocked to learn that an estimated 6 million to 10 million healthy animals are euthanized each year in North America due to lack of adoptive homes.

Brown German shorthaired pointer Rigby photographed outdoors.One evening, the Sojonkys received a call about a German shorthaired pointer that had been surrendered to a shelter 3 times and was likely going to be put down. They didn’t hesitate: Carla paid the adoption fee and drove 400 kilometres to pick up the dog first thing the next morning.

When she examined the dog, later named Rigby, Carla discovered an open scab on his front leg. She immediately took him to a vet and learned he had a wire wrapped around a plate in his leg. The wire was trying to work its way out. The vet prescribed antibiotics and told her to keep an eye on it.

Driving home to Canmore, the treatment didn’t make sense to Carla, as it didn’t solve the underlying issue. She immediately took Rigby to see her regular vet, Dr. Dave Brace, whom the Sojonkys had known since buying their home in the mountains. During that visit, Dr. Dave (as he is known throughout the Bow Valley) said Rigby urgently needed surgery to remove the plate and the wire.

The next day, there was more bad news. Dr. Dave discovered Rigby had a bone infection and a paralyzed larynx – a condition that made it difficult for the dog to breathe while overheated,  under anesthesia or during exercise. Both issues were potentially life threatening.

"There are so many pets who owe their lives to that wonderful man."

Carla recalls Dr. Dave saying, “We may not be able to save the leg, but I think we can save the dog.” Thanks to his efforts and care, Rigby recovered and lived until the age of 14.

“Rigby was our first Dr. Dave miracle. A few years later, Stella would be our second. There are so many pets who owe their lives to that wonderful man,” says Carla. “He’s a remarkable human being.”

A shared life dedicated to healthcare and animal welfare

Growing up in Edmonton’s Garneau neighbourhood, Carla’s family always had pets. An early childhood experience with a rooster named Chicklet influenced her passion for animal welfare and advocacy.

In fourth grade, she went to a classmate’s birthday party and as a party favour, got to choose a chick to take home. Over the next few weeks, Carla was horrified to hear about the demise of several chicks her classmates took home. Carla’s chick grew into a rooster that eventually went on to live a happy life at a friend’s farm.

“Thank goodness our awareness of animals is changing,” Carla says. “Can you imagine your child going to a birthday party and coming home with a chicken today?”

The pets she had growing up – including a cat that lived until the age of 23 – cultivated Carla’s lifelong love and respect for animals. These were values she shared with her husband Frank.

In 2005, the couple learned about the Bow Valley’s fundraising efforts to build a no-cage, no-kill animal adoption centre from Dr. Dave, who served on the board. 

“Little did I know, Frank phoned Dave later that day, made an appointment to meet with some board representatives, and the next day told me that the proposed Bow Valley SPCA building has a new name,” Carla says.

To her surprise, Frank’s substantial donation established the new building as the Carla Cumming Sojonky Adoption Centre, Home of the Bow Valley SPCA, which allowed construction to begin immediately.

The couple’s generosity didn’t end there. They later created the Frank and Carla Sojonky Animal Welfare Endowment and the Carla Cumming Sojonky Spay and Neuter Endowment through the Edmonton Community Foundation. They also continued their support of the Bow Valley SPCA.

In the late 1980s, Frank was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer.  For years, he kept it a secret until he decided to launch a major fundraising campaign to battle the disease.

Despite his incurable diagnosis, Frank gathered a group of local friends and businessmen (who became known as the Bird Dogs) to actively fundraise for the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton and the University of Alberta. The Sojonkys were honoured with the naming of the Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research.

By the time of his death in 2012, Frank and the Bird Dogs  raised over $14 million. He was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.

“His battle ended, but his legacy continues,” Carla says.

A legacy for animal caregivers

A few years after Frank died, Carla read a story about a scholarship donor in NAIT’s alumni magazine techlife. She and Frank had talked throughout the years about setting up scholarships.

Carla recalled her experiences in veterinary clinics and the extraordinary care her dogs received over the years. After bringing her pointer, Pixie, to donate blood at NAIT’s animal blood bank, she considered how the scholarship could help students in the Animal Health Technology program.

“They become a piece of your heart, psyche and soul. You can’t imagine life without them.”

 “Like anyone else, we’ve been through some very dark times, including Frank and dogs battling cancer,” says Carla. “Our dogs were always there with a gentle nuzzle, warm cuddle or funny antic. They become a piece of your heart, psyche and soul. You can’t imagine life without them.”

Carla also thought of Dr. Dave, how he cared for their dogs, and how he’d shown such compassion while Frank was battling cancer, calling regularly to check in on how he and the dogs were doing. The idea sparked to name the scholarship after the now-retired Dr. Dave.

“Education gives power, hope, and promise to lives. I wanted to create an educational opportunity for someone who otherwise may not have had it,” says Carla.

NAIT Animal Health Technology graduate Quinn in the clinic holding a brown dog.Dr. Dave’s scholarship helps student graduate

The first-ever recipient of the Dr. Dave Brace Award for Volunteerism in Animal Welfare, Quinn Schotanus (Animal Health Technology ’20) is eager to start her career and care for animals.

“It feels like you are making a difference every time you go to work.” 

After her partner was laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Quinn (pictured right) was concerned about whether she’d be able to continue her practicum required to graduate.

Thanks to Carla, she was able to complete the hours she needed and wants her to know just how much it meant.

“Every dollar you donated is a burden lifted,” says Quinn. “To the people like me who receive these scholarships, there’s not enough thanks to give.”