By Renée Hartleib |
Danièle (Talbot) Cruickshank has had many lives in one. A gifted musician and dancer from a young age, Cruickshank earned a ballet scholarship when she was 15. This opportunity took her from her childhood home of Chambly in Quebec (think world-famous beer) to the bustling city of Montreal. When she graduated from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens program at age 18, she continued to dance part-time, but knew she would need another career for the next phase of her life.
Having always played “teacher” with her childhood friends, a Bachelor of Education seemed the next logical step. After graduating from L’Université du Québec à Montréal, she began teaching French as a second language. One of her first gigs was with immigrant elementary school children. “It was so rewarding to teach them a whole new language—one that they needed to be able to speak to their new friends,” she says. “They were so motivated, and learning the language really empowered them.”
When her position dropped to half-time, Cruickshank began to look for work further afield. “I wanted to see new things and live in other places and discover other cultures and provinces.” Nova Scotia drew her in—the only trouble was that she didn’t speak much English. A year working in an English environment as a French immersion teacher in Halifax cured that! She chuckles when she remembers stumbling over her words in the first months of her Master’s in Education program at Saint Mary’s University in 1993: “The professors and my fellow classmates were very encouraging and understanding about my English skills.”
Cruickshank chose SMU for the reputation of the school and the program, the small class sizes, and its multicultural student population. There was also a pleasant surprise in the form of a cutting edge class on technology that SMU was offering. “At the time, computers were just starting to be introduced into the classroom and this course really helped me wrap my head around what the future was going to look like,” she says. “I definitely had a head start when I returned to the schools to teach.”
Upon graduation from the two-year program, Cruickshank spent over a decade working first at Fairview Junior High and then later at Rockingham Elementary. In 2008, her husband, who was an officer in the Air Force, received a NATO Foreign Exchange posting to Florida. The couple relocated but the SMU grad couldn’t find work as a French teacher. “There was plenty of Spanish, but not much need for French!” she says. Her husband told her to just enjoy some time off, but that had never really been Cruickshank’s style. “After two months, I was antsy, and wanted to do something that had meaning.”
“These have been, by far, my best life experiences.” -Danièle Cruickshank
A lover of animals, she began volunteering at the local SPCA, and it’s here that her life trajectory dramatically changed. She began by simply volunteering her time with the animals in the shelter, petting cats and walking dogs, but after a few months, was asked to help out in animal surgery. “I was reluctant and actually said no, thinking I would be squeamish about the blood, but they were persistent!” When she finally agreed, and to Cruickshank’s immense surprise, she ended up loving it. In fact, it was such a natural fit that the clinic offered to train her for free. Seizing the opportunity, she went on to work for three years as a Veterinary Technician while continuing to volunteer.
“My time in Florida really opened my eyes to what kind of treatment some animals have to endure,” she says. It’s why she now actively protests things like dog-fighting rings, puppy mills, entertainment involving animals, the fur trade, and laboratory use of animals. “What I saw has compelled me to be a voice for the voiceless,” she says. “We all live on a beautiful blue planet. A life is a life and every being deserves to be here.”
To that end, she joined an organization called Red Star through the American Humane Association and received special training to become a certified Animal Emergency Rescuer. In the case of natural disasters or animal cruelty cases, volunteers like Cruickshank are contacted to assist with animals in need. In the last two years, she has been called on twice, the first time for the EF5 strength tornado that levelled the town of Moore, Oklahoma in 2013.
“The devastation cannot be put in words or captured by a camera,” she says. “Many people lost family, homes, and pets. It was a dramatic eye-opener to the power of nature.” Cruickshank took care of lost, injured, and frightened dogs and cats in the aftermath of the disaster, providing medical care and lots of love.
In 2014, the Red Star Emergency Services Team was again asked to assist with an equine cruelty case in Tennessee. Cruickshank witnessed first hand the deplorable condition the horses were in and helped rescue 18 severely neglected and emaciated horses. “In both of these emergency situations, when you help an animal return to health and regain their trust, the feeling is indescribable,” she says. “These have been, by far, my best life experiences.”
Now living in Edmonton, Cruickshank has retired from teaching and has her sights set on finding a job in animal health and/or welfare again. In the meantime, she continues to be open to life’s opportunities to learn and grow. “It’s always been important for me to try new things. In my thirties I earned my boating license; in my forties, I took up wake boarding and water skiing; and when I recently turned 50, I signed up for horseback-riding lessons.”
Excelling at these activities was never her goal. She simply wanted to learn more about the things that called out to her. Cruickshank definitely met the call to be of service to animals head on, despite a severe drop in pay and status. “Success is such a subjective thing. For me, it’s not defined by money or how you are perceived by others,” she says. “It’s all about the happiness I have found along the way and the difference I’ve been able to make by doing what I love.”