Guelph’s Michelle Hunniford uses science, literature to understand her chickens

Michelle Hunniford happily acknowledges that, for a poultry scientist, her educational background is a bit unusual.

“I actually did an undergrad in both biology and English literature,” says Hunniford, who’s currently in the fifth year of her PhD in animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Guelph.

“It’s super weird, and people give me funny looks sometimes when I say that! But it actually ended up [giving me] a really strong background.”

Hunniford’s current research probes the behaviour of laying hens housed in furnished housing systems, focusing on the design of the furnishings—perches, scratch mats, and nesting areas—and whether, as she puts it, hens use those systems the way their designers wanted them to.

“A lot of the furnishings were designed from the human perspective,” she says. “For example, I’m mainly interested in whether a hen actually sees the nest as a good place to lay her eggs.”

It is research that Hunniford may not have necessarily pursued were it not for her intriguing interdisciplinary background as an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

There were two seminars during her undergraduate degree, says Hunniford, that set her on her current path. One was a class on sensory biology, where she wrote a major paper on quantifying pain in clinical veterinary settings—a paper that required her to try to perceive an experience like pain from an animal’s perspective.

The second formative seminar came from Queen’s English department. “It was called ‘Women and Animals.’ It featured a discussion about the animal welfare movement in the 1800s [plus] a bunch of readings from current animal welfare theorists,” says Hunniford.

“I thought, what a strange field that could be covered in both an English and a science class,” she adds. “And I think that’s why it’s so compelling—it’s so interdisciplinary, you have to take so many different points of view into account.”

When it comes to understanding how hens interact with their housing, one point of view that’s essential is that of the hen’s—and that’s not always easy. As Hunniford points out, while you can ask a human research subject how they feel about their surroundings—whether they feel comfort or frustration—you’re not going to get more than a blank stare if you try that approach with a hen.

So Hunniford strives to understand the housing system from the hen’s perspective. It’s important work, she says—work that could have a significant impact on the future of the industry.

As for whether Hunniford would ever want to put her English degree to use writing about science for the public, specifically the poultry research industry, Hunniford says it’s a possibility—at least one day, once she’s no longer “just a graduate student.”

“One of the things I get frustrated about is that, with a field like animal welfare, there’s so many aspects of misinformation…about what goes on at farms, how animals are treated,” says Hunniford.

“A real interest of mine is scientific communication—how to take what we’re studying and be able to communicate it in an accurate, interesting way to the public.”