My name is Michelle Hunniford and I am a chicken scientist! I have a PhD in Poultry Behaviour and Welfare from the University of Guelph, graduating in 2017. I worked with Dr. Tina Widowski for six years, first as a Master's student, then as a PhD candidate and finally a Postdoctoral Fellow. During that time, our lab was investigating the behaviour of laying hens housed in furnished cages. I focused on nesting behaviour -- what it looks like in that housing system and how we can improve nest design to better suit a chicken's behavioural needs. I am currently the National Animal Care Specialist for Burnbrae Farms.
My grandparents had a small farm outside London, Ontario with a few beef cows and some chickens. I have really fond memories of summers spent at the farm but I actually grew up in the city. Other than seeing them in the barnyard when I was six, I didn't come face to face with chickens again until I started grad school in 2011.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to work with animals. I read all of James Herriot's books and imagined myself a country veterinarian, going on adventures and helping save animals in rural England. I have always loved animals, so naturally when people found that out they always said "Oh, so you're going to be a vet then?" At the time, I didn't know there were any other career options involving animals so I always replied with an enthusiastic "yes"!
Fast forward to my final year of undergrad at Queen's University. I had taken the MCAT and sent in my application... I was on the path to becoming a veterinarian! Then I enrolled in two seminar courses that changed my life.
One was a fourth year biology seminar called "Sensory Biology" taught by Dr. Craig Hawryshyn. The other was an English Literature seminar called "Women and Animals" with Dr. Maggie Berg. The first introduced me to the field of subjective pain assessment in animals and the second introduced me to the field of Animal Welfare Science. It was the perfect mix of arts and science, combining biology with ethics, politics, history. After getting some life-changing advice from Dr. Hawryshyn (that I should pursue a career in research), I also applied to the Animal Behaviour and Welfare program at the University of Guelph.
It was at the University of Guelph that I really hit my stride. I learned how to design experiments, use technology to assess behaviour, and keep asking questions. I was able to travel the world, talk about my work at conferences, conduct research in a different country, meet many amazing people, and take pride in being a scientist. And I developed my passion for chickens.
I cannot speak highly enough about the Animal Behaviour and Welfare Program and the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph for providing me with a depth of experience that is unparalleled in the world. There are so many career options for those who want to work with animals, and this was a great place to start.
I took on the role of National Animal Care Specialist at Burnbrae Farms in October 2017. I am responsible for ensuring the birds on all our farms across Canada receive the same high standard of care. Some days that means going into a barn and scoring a flock for different attributes; training new employees; or updating our policies to reflect current scientific research. The day-to-day nature of this position is as varied and exciting (and also challenging) as the birds that we care for. I cannot think of a better use of my skills and training.