Strap line

It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Friday, 10 August 2012

Back to basics - let me introduce myself...

Hey Julie!

I'm pretty excited to revisit the whole penpal concept too! I had one when I was 10yrs old who lived in the USA (just like you!) and was named Mia (just like me!).

So how about I start by telling you a bit about me?

I live near the Yarra Valley in outer Melbourne, Australia. I have always been fascinated by animal behaviour (yes, a U in behaviour, it’s how we Australian’s roll). I studied a Bachelor of Science at Monash University, majoring in Zoology/Biological Sciences with a minor in Psychology. I continued to a fourth Honours year researching the ‘Feeding ecology and interspecific interactions of the Pied Currawong, Strepera graculina’. Basically I chased birds around watching what they ate and how they interacted with other birds.

It was better than I had expected. Turns out birds are quite cool and these birds were especially neat because they were acting like an invasive species (moving into urban areas when the food ran low in their normal mountain habitat to exploit introduced plants that were fruiting in residential gardens in Autumn and Winter), even though they’re natives. They were super smart and able to utilise many (like seven!) different behaviours to find food, where most other birds just have one or two techniques. There was also this guy who fed a bunch of 30 birds 20kg (that’s 44lbs!) of chicken mince meat every week. Why bother searching for bugs and beetles when you can have gourmet mince served up every day at 4pm? The way humans and animals interact is interesting stuff!

I'm no dog whisperer... but I am a dog researcher!
After my degree I worked at the uni as a research assistant helping find out how leaf-cutter ants from Venezuela move. Turns out ants are really cool too. Some people think that nature optimises systems so there were a whole lot of traffic engineers interested in how wide the ants would make their path to accommodate the colony members carting fragments of leaves to the nest. There were some physicists who thought the ant colony acted like gas particles expanding and contracting which turned out to be relevant to planning how people can evacuate buildings in emergencies. My piece of the story was looking at how the ants carried their load. Sadly I didn’t go to Venezuela, but spent hours watching videos of these ants in a lab, measuring the triangles formed by their legs when they walked and how the triangles varied depending on load and speed. Somehow, it was still really fun!

I took some time off and travelled for most of a year, visiting a fair bit of Europe, a little bit of India and a bit more of Nepal.

I came home with a maxed out credit card and started working at the first place who took me, which turned out to be RSPCA Victoria. I worked in the admissions and processing area of their Shelter, seeing all of the stray, injured, surrendered and cruelty case animals coming in. Part of my duties was to assist in the euthanasia of animals that were too unwell or otherwise unable to be rehomed. It was a tough job emotionally for someone who adores animals, but one that lit a real passion in me to help make life better for the animals around us. There were days I was convinced we should have been desexing and euthanasing some people instead of the animals!

I was recruited to be part of a new RSPCA Education Centre and then moved on to working as an Education Officer talking to school children and community groups about the five freedoms of animal welfare and other topics like 'how to choose the right dog for you'. I was involved in leading ‘Puppy Preschool’ classes through the RSPCA vet clinic and took my own two dogs through obedience training levels as well. My cat even attended ‘Kitty Kinder’ and can come, sit and high-5 when asked – awesome, right?! But not quite as awesome as this:

In 2003 I moved into the role of Training Kennel and Vet Clinic Manager at Guide Dogs Victoria – a job that I absolutely adored the entire time I was there. I supervised an amazing team of staff dedicated to the care of the physical and mental wellbeing of the puppies, dogs in training and working GD’s. While I was working there I was lucky to meet and work with people from lots of other working dog sectors like Quarantine and Customs detector dogs; Police dog squads and even the greyhound racing industry. I became very interested in the welfare of workings dogs, especially those housed in kennel facilities and how we could maximise their wellbeing and how that might relate to their ‘work performance’ for us humans. 

I made some great friends at Melbourne Zoo learning how they utilise enrichment to improve animal welfare. I started my PhD (part time as I was working full time) with Pauleen Bennett and the Anthrozoology Research Group, looking into the effects of a structured enrichment program of the welfare and performance of young guide dogs. I’m still plugging away at that but look forward to telling you about the project in more detail in later posts. I’ve also been involved with the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy working group for working dog welfare (say that eight times fast!) since 2005, but I might save details about that until later too as I seem to have rambled on for far too long here!

So anyway – tell me about you!

What were you doing before we sat next to each other in Barcelona?
Was it always going to be canine science for you?

p.s. My Mum is originally from Denmark, so I am totally all over the advent calendar scene - they rock!