EAST LANSING, Mich. – There’s no doubt about it: these days, animal welfare questions are at the top of a lot of people’s minds and being put to the vote on ballots across the country. It will be today’s university students who will be charged with being the world’s future decision makers on these issues.
Students representing universities and veterinary schools across the United States and Canada will come to Michigan State University (MSU) Nov. 20-21 to learn about and debate topics related to the welfare of animals in the tenth annual Intercollegiate Animal Welfare Judging and Assessment Contest.
The competition, which is divided into undergraduate, graduate and veterinary college divisions, allows students to compete in events focused on increasing the understanding of welfare and care issues affecting animals used for human purposes, including food production, research and companionship. The event promotes students’ critical thinking, teaches ethical reasoning skills, encourages objective assessments based on science, and improves persuasive public speaking and presentation skills.
“There is still a large portion of the public that doesn’t understand the difference between animal welfare and animal rights, but they’re still very sensitive to the issues,” said Camie Heleski, MSU animal science instructor and one of the founders of the contest and coach for the MSU undergraduate judging team. “Students who compete in this contest are able to gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for all that’s encompassed by the term “animal welfare.”
“Having a sound knowledge of the fundamentals and factors contributing to good animal welfare and not basing decisions solely on emotion or assumptions is key,” she added. “Students can put this knowledge to use to better communicate with their peers and make well-informed decisions in their future careers.”
On the first day of the competition, students will attend educational seminars presented by animal welfare experts from across the Midwest and Canada that are focused on the species they will evaluate in the contest. This year’s scheduled presenters are Derek Haley, Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, on welfare concerns related to beef cattle; Katherine Houpt, professor emeritus at Cornell University and consultant with Animal Behavior Consultants of Northern Michigan, on welfare related to working and service dogs; Suzanne Millman, College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University, on the welfare of broiler chickens; and Cynthia Bennett, Director of Animal Welfare at the Detroit Zoo, on welfare concerns pertaining to giraffes.
Following the seminars, students will compete in the team assessment event, working in groups to assess the welfare of animals housed at the MSU Beef Cattle Research Center. In both the team and individual events, students must assess health and behavioral indicators related to animal welfare. Following the farm assessment, teams will prepare an oral presentation defending their findings that will be delivered to a panel of judges made up of animal welfare experts, including speakers from the educational seminars.
On the second day of the contest, students will work individually to evaluate welfare scenarios in each of three categories – companion animals, animals used in agriculture, and exotic or laboratory animals. Scenarios this year will focus on working and service dogs, broiler chickens and giraffes, respectively. Depending on the animal species being evaluated, competitors will compare either individual animals, entire farms or different laboratory settings. They will rank the animals or settings from best to worst according to welfare indicators. After completing their assessments, students will prepare and deliver oral reasons defending their findings to the judges.
The judges will evaluate and compare the quality of welfare in each scenario. Based on their assessment, they will come up with an official placing – or ranking – for each species scenario. The closer that students come to matching the judges’ official placings, the higher they score. Judges will calculate total scores based on team event presentations, individual scenario placings and oral reasons scores.
“No matter whether these students plan to become livestock producers, animal welfare auditors, veterinarians, zoo keepers or pursue a related animal field, they are learning practical and applicable skills that will transfer over to their careers,” Heleski said. “They are learning how to use scientific findings to make decisions, and down the road, they’ll be able to work more effectively with their customers or clients who value the fact that animals are being well cared for based on proven findings.”
This year’s contest will be hosted by MSU and the MSU Animal Behavior and Welfare Group (ABWG) with support from the American Veterinary Medical Association and the MSU Department of Animal Science.
The MSU ABWG studies various animal well-being issues. Its mission is to develop practical solutions for improving the general well-being and long-term welfare of animals based on sound science and providing the necessary training to implement these solutions.