People of Poultry: Teryn Girard

Dr. Teryn Girard is a highly sought after speaker, instructor and commercial and small flock poultry veterinarian in Alberta. Read on as she shares thoughts about the state of commercial and small flock poultry farming in Alberta, the trauma endured and bravery demonstrated by so many during the recent Avian influenza crisis and how community and teamwork is foundational to her career choices and the joy she feels every day on the job.

It was always clear to her mom that Teryn Girard was meant to be a vet, although it took many years for Teryn herself to see the light. Teryn spent her childhood surrounded by the eclectic collection of animals at Edmonton’s Storyland Valley Zoo, as her mom was manager at the time, and the experience was foundational. 

“I never put it together until a few years ago,” laughed Teryn. 

Entering U of A, Girard found that the only subject that lit a small spark was biology, and after bouncing around for four years, she had enough courses to obtain her B.Sc. with a major in biology and a minor in writing. After graduation, she saved money to travel with her partner and found herself working at animal sanctuaries and farms from Australia to Vietnam. It finally hit her that she wanted to be a vet. 

“It would have been nice if I had figured it out sooner,” she laughed. 

After technical writing work and more animal-based courses, Teryn finally ended up in ANSCI 200 and met Dr. Frank Robinson. This is a story told so often by so many – meeting Frank was the beginning of everything for Teryn. Frank gave her the sense of community that she had never had in school, and her grades skyrocketed. 

She applied for vet school and was turned down on her first try, so she began working towards her master’s degree. She was accepted to vet school halfway through that degree and ironically had to defer for half a year. She achieved her M.Sc. in in Poultry Applied Ethology with Application to Animal Welfare from the U of A and headed off to vet school in Calgary, AB. 

Vet School and specializing in poultry

“It was a tumultuous four years,” she mused. “It’s a great program but there was a lot of hands-on work for somebody who wanted to be a chicken vet. I kept looking at cattle and I kept looking at small animals, but I kept coming back to poultry.” 

“When I would run into the poultry community, the feeling was, oh yeah, this is where I belong.”

Girard achieved her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary in 2019 and was class valedictorian for the graduation ceremony. She also won the Canadian Veterinary Medicine Leadership Award.  

After graduating, she began to meet producers who were welcoming and took her education to the next level. The turning point was meeting Mark Nelson from Cargill.

“He was the coach and mentor that I needed and wanted. I then jumped on with Prairie Livestock Veterinarians and I wake up every day not knowing how I got so lucky to get this job.” 

Challenges of being a poultry vet

Although Girard works primarily with commercial farms, she has thoughts about changes that need to happen in the way chickens are viewed in all environments. 

“The commercial industry is held at such a high level of social license,” she said. “We always need to make sure that birds are in a good welfare state, that they are being treated if they need to be treated, that they are humanely euthanized if they need to be euthanized. This standard needs to be translated to the small flocks now.”

“From a small flock perspective, we are still in the transition of understanding that when you have chickens as pets or as production animals, we need to treat them as a sentient being. When they are in a small flock and they are sick, they need treatment, much like a dog or cat. And when their quality of life is compromised and not going to get better, they need to be humanely euthanized, as you would a cat or dog. If you have a disease in your flock, you need to work it up for the protection of your other animals and the protection of public health.”

That thought process is not rooted yet. 

“We need to work on the understanding that you own these animals, it’s your responsibility to take care of them in an appropriate and animal welfare way.”

What does a typical day on a commercial farm look like?

Teryn’s practice is mostly commercial with some regular small flock clients. She visits commercial farms daily, and has access to labs in Red Deer, Lethbridge, Airdrie and Edmonton for post-mortem of birds. 

“It’s so much fun,” Teryn laughed. “I usually find a way to get a free lunch!”

Her phone will start ringing around 7:30 am. Typically she follows a schedule of visiting certain farms every week with a farm visit in the morning, post-mortems at the lab in the afternoon and writing up reports in the evening. 

Cargill sells feed to poultry producers in Alberta and Saskatchewan and, as the vet for Cargill, Teryn gets to take care of those producers and their birds as part of their service package. 

“This gives me so much freedom as a vet,” she explained. “I don’t have to worry about billing, or how much of my time is going to come down to the producers. I get to just do my job really well and build relationships with the clients.” 

The partnership began when she was treating birds for some of the producers that Mark Nelson was servicing. He recognized the benefit of having a vet on-farm, including the ability to see changes week to week, fine tune diets and catch issues early. They both saw huge improvements in flock health and production. 

“From there, it was like, let’s do this!”   

The primary challenge for Teryn is that, because she loves her job so much, she works all the time. 

“Work-life balance is not a real thing in my life,” said Teryn. “What do you do in your free time? I work!”

Avian Influenza in Alberta: What was it like for you as a poultry vet?

“That was the worst experience I have had in my short poultry vet career,” said Teryn. “Seeing what the producers were going through as they waited for a diagnosis and, almost all the time, it was positive. Once the positive diagnosis was made, I would try and help them, but with no control. We went from a relationship where I was their vet and we worked together as a team, to everything being up to the CFIA.”

She worked closely with producers, helping them get SOP’s done, preparing next steps, looking for answers to their questions. AI had never been diagnosed in Alberta before, everything was new, and it was a learning moment for Girard to define her role throughout the crisis. As cases progressed, she learned what she could do to bring comfort and help to producers. 

“At the end of the day, the amount of stress and work put on the producers was terrible. It broke my heart to see what they were going through, and it broke my heart that I couldn’t do more for people that have always supported me and that I have worked so closely with.”

The Prairie Livestock team also faced great stress and created a template with assigned roles and protocols. “It taught me a lot about leadership for our team at that time and a lot more about resiliency.”

“A massive key point of the AB breakout that needs to be widely known is that, without the courage and early detection of the producers we have, it would have been much worse. And it was terrible.” 

“We all need to thank those producers. They went through a horrendous time and thank goodness that they raised the flag when they did.”

“If any of these producers had waited to report it, we could still be in AI right now.”    

Final thoughts on her choice of poultry veterinarian medicine.

“When I was in college, a mentor told me that when you are treating small animals, and they come in on a sinking ship, you throw them a lifeline and then offer another lifeline and then it’s up to the owner to decide what to grab. You are there to help them.”

“When you work in population medicine, you are on that boat with them. If you are not, you need to fix the relationship. It’s a business, it’s a way of living and the only way you are going to get the information you need is to be on the boat. Walking the barn, seeing what’s going on, talking with them, and knowing the producer so you are working together.” 

“The producers will always know a lot more than I do. I am coming in with one piece – bird health and behaviour. So, we have to work together and that changes the whole scope. It’s shared decision making, its shared information gathering, it’s shared problem-solving. I thrive on those relationships, and I thrive on teamwork.” 

“It’s 100% community.” 

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