Growing up in Chicago, Tina Widowski had a deep interest in animals and their biology but was only aware of two professional options: a veterinarian or a zookeeper. However, a discovery of animal agriculture and a passion for animal behavior and welfare led Widowski down a different path, one that has given her great satisfaction and aided the egg industry’s understanding of best practices for hen welfare.
Widowski’s path, as most successful ones, has not been a straight line. She has worked hard and gained valuable experience making her one of the most well-known and respected names in animal welfare research. Widowski has gone from city kid to working hands-on with farmers, and it is clear that being able to provide answers to people in the animal industry is very important to her.
While on her academic path, Widowski received a Bachelor’s Degree in Ecology, Ethology, & Evolution at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign. While there, she enrolled in an animal science class and fell in love. The class dealt with environmental physiology, the housing of farm animals and animal welfare, and was taught by Stan Curtis, who became an inspiring mentor to Widowski. The study of animal welfare science opened her eyes to a line of work in which her keen interest in animal biology and her compassion for animals could be put to tangible use. Being an animal welfare scientist would allow Widowski to influence policy changes that could really help both the industry, the animals and society. It was the perfect fit. So Widowski shifted her advanced degree path to receive her Master’s in animal science with an emphasis in animal behavior. She worked largely with sows and piglets in Curtis’s lab, and then pursued her Ph.D. by studying the hormones that trigger nest building behavior in sows about to give birth. “Temple Grandin went to college there as well at the time,” Widowski fondly recalled. “We became quite good friends and colleagues. It was a very exciting lab to be in. ” (Colorado State Professor Temple Grandin is a world renown animal welfare expert who has been able to utilize the characteristics of her autisum to help her gain insight into livestock’s reactions to external simulus.)
After completing her degrees at Urbana, she found a position managing a monkey colony and doing postdoctoral research at the University of Wisconsin. Then she and her husband learned of great opportunities at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. They moved their young family to Ontario and have continued to find great success there. Widowski worked as a part-time post doc when her children were young, then worked as a lecturer, and then earned a full-time professor position. It was here that Widowski met Ian Duncan, another of her mentors. Duncan had an approach to the study of poultry welfare that was very unique. “He asked the animals about how they felt using strategies such as motivation tests in which the animal would push a door to get to something it wanted, with more and more weight being added to the door,” Widowski said. “This helps you determine the animal’s priorities and decide what to include in [an] environment to make them satisfied and help their well-being.” Widowski feels both this approach, combined with a knowledge of physiology she had learned with Curtis, affects her style of research today.
Some of Widowski’s work caught the eye of the Egg Farmers of Canada, who invited her to join their research chair network in 2011. Excited to have the opportunity to observe hens and their natural movements and preferences, she excitedly agreed to the responsibility. Widowski remarked on the similar issues shared between species. “Hogs and chickens are both monogastric organisms that have typically been kept in closely confined systems.” Widowski said. “They want to nest and perform other ‘natural’ motivated behaviors, but both are often at risk for other problems when kept in larger groups in loose-housing systems,” Widowski explained.
So for the past eight years she has worked to further everyone’s understanding on hen welfare. Widowski says that the most rewarding part has been getting to lend her scientific knowledge to Canada’s Codes of Practice for the care and handling of laying hens. These are official policies in Canada that are enforced by law. As a scientist, her role in developing the code is to review scientific literature and put forward the facts on what is needed to ensure the welfare of the birds. Then a multi-stakeholder group (including individuals from humane societies, egg producers, and government officials) works together to create the final standards of care. “The most rewarding part of this process is learning the viewpoints of everyone involved,” Widowski said. “It is important to be compassionate to all.”
As a welfare scientist, Widowski is often called upon to develop techniques and make decisions about end of life care and euthanasia of sick or older birds. “Studying this particular topic is difficult, but so important,” she states. “The science is the relatively easy part, it’s the emotional toll that is tough, especially for my students.” But looking at the other end of the life cycle is where Widowski has found the most enjoyment. “Working with pullets is the most personally impactful part of my job; seeing how much the environment can impact the future for the pullet as a hen,” Widowski said. “This is something people haven’t paid as much attention to, with more attention always given to hens,” Widowski stated. She went on the explain that the key to welfare research is learning to understand how animals think and feel, not from the human perspective, but through methods that inform about the animal’s experience. Widowski and the many students that work in her lab always keep that in mind.
Widowski’s impact on students is a big part of her story, and one that will continue to benefit the industry for many years to come. Students often ask her how she ended up in hen welfare as her career, to which she responds that it was a keen interest in science, and a passion for the good treatment of animals combined with the desire to make a real worldwide difference. She whole-heartedly encourages students to make being an animal welfare scientist their goal. Widowski knows that students from all walks of life can find great satisfaction and fulfillment in animal welfare science, a field that is growing in opportunities.
The most important message Widowski would like everyone to know is that people should strive to learn and find credible sources for where their food comes from. “If you have expectations about how your food should be raised, then you have to be willing to pay for it,” Widowski said. “It’s everyone’s responsibility, and those systems cost more money.”
By Michelle Putze