Tina Widowski: Animal Welfare Scientist, Leader, Mentor, Mother
Tina Widowski: Animal Welfare Scientist, Leader, Mentor, Mother
By Kim Sheppard, CCSAW Communications
On a mid-spring afternoon in the late 1960’s, a young Tina Widowski stood watching the infamous Ziggy, a former circus elephant who lived at the Brookfield Zoo in the outskirts of Chicago, where she grew up. While most animals in the zoo were separated by an innovative series of moats and ditches rather than bars, Ziggy spent nearly three decades chained facing the wall of his indoor enclosure, after nearly killing a keeper in 1941.
Of all the animals Tina spent time observing during her Sunday visits to the zoo with her Dad, Ziggy’s situation made the deepest impact. Surely, Tina thought, with knowledge and understanding of this magnificent animal’s needs, such extreme confinement could be modified to enhance his well-being. And it was changed eventually, when Ziggy was released into his own moat-enclosed outdoor facility, but for only about five years before his death.
Little did Tina know, over the next forty or so years she would become one of the world’s foremost experts on the behavioural and physiological needs of not one - but billions of animals - contributing to science-based guidelines for optimal housing, transport and management practices. Not specifically for the zoo animals that so ignited her curiosity as a child, but rather for livestock and poultry.
Today, Tina is a Professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph, and just completed a twelve-year term as Director of The Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW) and University Chair in Animal Welfare, which is the oldest Chair in Animal Welfare in North America. Before this, Tina was Assistant and Associate Director, working alongside former Director Dr. Ian Duncan, who was instrumental in CCSAW’s establishment.
With a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach, Tina has grown CCSAW to be the largest Centre of its kind in North America, and one of the largest in the world. During her Directorship, as part of this, Tina successfully expanded our graduate programme: Animal Behaviour and Welfare became a recognised specialization in Animal Biosciences, and she won substantial funding to create 4 new courses.
The array of courses has allowed around a dozen Major Research Paper (coursework) students to win their MScs with us every year, as well as providing a rich training environment for our thesis students. During her Directorship, the popular CCSAW research seminar series started, as did our annual Research Symposia. Tina also developed a core training programme for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) and secured initial funding to establish the Saputo Dairy Care programme.
In 2011, Widowski was awarded the Egg Farmers of Canada Research Chair in Poultry Welfare, a position she continues to hold while leading a vibrant and productive research team. During her term she also established the Burnbrae Farms Professorship in Poultry Welfare, currently held by Associate Professor Alexandra Harlander.
Since arriving at U of Guelph in 1990, and while teaching several undergraduate and graduate level courses on animal physiology, behaviour and welfare, Tina has advised over 100 graduate students. She has authored or co-authored over 230 research publications and nine book chapters that have helped to shape animal welfare practices around the world. And she has earned industry-wide respect as a trusted partner in animal welfare improvement.
But the path to success is rarely a straight line, and Tina’s path has been no exception. From an early age she wanted to become a veterinarian or zoologist, and maintained high grades, while working at a veterinary clinic to gain the animal experience necessary to be offered a place at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
“She applied with superb marks,” says Nate Perkins, Tina’s husband and partner of over 40 years. “And it was during a time that women applicants still removed their wedding and engagement rings. There was this idea at the time that veterinary faculty didn’t want to admit newlywed women, because they might have babies and leave.”
Nate doesn’t recall if Tina actually took off her engagement ring, but he remembers well her devastation when she received the rejection letter from the veterinary college, citing a lack of large animal experience. Deeply disappointed but not easily deterred, Tina’s solution was simple: gain large animal experience by taking a summer job in the lab of Dr. Stan Curtis, Professor and swine welfare researcher in the Department of Animal Science at the University if Illinois.
Dr. Curtis was fast becoming legendary for his application of environmental physiology fundamentals to housing, management, and well-being of farm animals at a time when the field of animal welfare was in its infancy. He invited Tina into his lab on one condition: She would stay and complete her MSc.
Tina’s decision to accept his offer was one that would change the trajectory of her career and arguably, her entire life - and steer her into the relatively new field of farm animal welfare science.
“Stan was brilliant. He was internationally known, and at the top of his game. He was a great scientist.” says Nate. “Now, out of not being admitted to vet school, she was in a world class lab with Temple Grandin as a lab mate – world class!”
With incredibly good training, Tina excelled in the MSc program and realizing that she could apply her passion for animals to improve welfare of the millions and millions used for food production, she carried on and completed her PhD. While finishing her data analysis and writing her thesis, Tina took a job managing a primate lab, caring for pigmy marmosets and cotton-top tamarins. “They were clingers” Nate says. “She’d be cleaning the cages with them clinging to her hair.”
Although not always this close, Tina prides herself on keeping close to the animals she works with. She regularly visits the farms she is invested in helping and is often found in the research barns collecting data with her students.
This is important. Tina understands that no amount of reading or information gathering can provide the type of knowing that is acquired by spending time out in the barns, with the animals and their caretakers. Its time spent here while observing and wondering, combined with data collection and discovery, that leads to a true knowledge of how animals live and could be better managed. This leads to making realistic science-based improvements that meet animals’ needs while ensuring the livelihoods of those farming them.
Tina’s dedication to knowledge-seeking has not gone unnoticed by the people she works with and for, which are largely within the poultry industry these days. “Tina is a true asset to our industry, generating high quality research and mentoring many top-quality students who have found employment in our industry.” Says Helen Anne Hudson, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Burnbrae Farms Ltd., one of Canada’s leading egg farmers. “She collaborates with poultry farmers on a regular basis and her work is always relevant to the needs of the industry.”
Those collaborations have made a real-world difference. In a 2019 interview with Canadian Poultry magazine, Tina explained “My goal is to understand and match their behavioural biology with the ways that they are housed and managed in order to meet their needs and the needs of farmers.”
By balancing animals’ needs with industry needs and making realistic recommendations, positive change is being realized. Tina’s service on Scientific Committees for Canada’s National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) Code of Practice for Pigs and for Turkeys, Broilers and Breeders has helped to shape standard housing and management practices.
As Chair of the Scientific Committee for NFACC’s Code of Practice for Laying Hens and a member of the Layer Code Development Committee, she helped set standards for the housing and care of laying hens across Canada. This is particularly important as Canadian egg farmers move away from conventional hen housing and to enriched or cage-free housing by 2036.
Tina also serves on the United Egg Producers (UEP) Scientists Committee on Animal Welfare, who evaluate egg-laying hen well-being standards, review existing research, conduct new research, and recommend changes for egg farms in the United States. The first recommendations from this advisory committee became the foundation for UEP Certified.
A particularly difficult area of Tina’s work has been development of humane methods of euthanasia for poultry and piglets. It takes a heavy emotional toll and is the type of research no one genuinely wants to do – but this work needs to be done and has made a difference for animals and their handlers around the world. Tina’s work has also improved transport and handling of market pigs, and care of sows and piglets.
While animal welfare has been her life’s work and passion, when asked by Canadian Poultry magazine what she considers to be her most significant career achievement, Tina answers: “My relationships with my students. The most rewarding part of the job is to help young people find their passion, develop their skills, grow and succeed. So many of my students have gone on to successful careers in research and industry and I’m very proud of them.”
Tina’s students, in turn, see her as a mentor and as paramount to their professional development. Tina’s standards are high, and she demands excellence from her students. They quickly learn to step into her office well-prepared and expect to be challenged. She deftly leads her students outside of their comfort zones and into their growth zones.
Three of her recently graduated PhD students, Teresa Casey-Trott, Krysta Morrissey, Michelle Hunniford share a collective sentiment about Tina’s impact on them: “Tina’s belief in our individual capabilities gave us the confidence to push our boundaries and excel beyond our expectations” they say. “She has high expectations of us, but she also provides all the resources and support to enable us to be successful.”
While her relationship with her students may be Tina’s most significant career achievement, being a Mom to her two sons, Colin and Evan, has been her most fulfilling and rewarding life achievement. “She never considered motherhood a sacrifice” Nate says.
While today women have more autonomy to choose a professional career-path while also parenting, it’s not always been an easy choice, particularly when Tina began her own career. “Tina has always been irritated at the notion that women have a better chance of professional success if single or childless. She sets an example of how to be a mom and a great scientist at the same time” Nate says. It takes grit – something Nate says has also contributed to Tina’s success: “She would just grind it out.”
Tina’s students sum up her approach to life and success: “Learning that a successful career is not only measured by the number of publications and presentations, but by the real-life impact that you are able to make, and that there is more than one pathway to success, will continue to guide us on our individual journeys going forward.”
We at the Campbell Center for the Study of Animal Welfare thank Tina for her contribution to our success as a world-class Centre, and to our success as individuals making the world a better place for animals and people alike.
Canadian Poultry, 2019. 5 Questions with poultry researcher Tina Widowski. May 2019 Issue. [Online] Available at: https://www.canadianpoultrymag.com/5-questions-with-poultry-researcher-tina-widowski-31008/