Michigan State University is now one of only a handful of institutions offering training in the scientific assessment of animal welfare, bringing qualitative measurements to an area long left to the subjective, and even the emotional.
Department of Animal Science associate professor Adroaldo Zanella developed the idea for the online graduate-level course. It’s designed to prepare students to scientifically assess animal welfare in real-life situations and establish a common language.
Animal welfare has garnished increasing attention from a general public who wants evidence that animals, in zoos or on farms, are treated humanely. This issue also has an economic impact on the agricultural industry where an ill or compromised animal may mean lost revenue. From a tiger in a zoo to a dairy cow on a farm, students learn to scientifically evaluate a variety of animals living in different situations.
“In the past, animal welfare was viewed as a very subjective type of discipline,” Zanella said. “Too often we make assumptions on what is good for animals by looking at things from a human perspective and this is a mistake.”
Offering the course online to students conquers the challenges teaching such a multifaceted topic presents. No one institution has the world’s top experts in fields such as animal law, the physiological indicators of stress, ethics and economics. The online course can bring them all to students, no matter where the experts are located.
The course offers students the opportunity to learn from the world’s top animal scientists – from the United States, Great Britain, Australia and Canada. The virtual classroom permits students to pose questions to instructors who are states and even oceans away.
In its first semester students from MSU, Purdue and the University of Wisconsin can expect to see their initial lecture designed by David Fraser of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Fraser is a key figure in animal welfare science and is the North American member of the International Organization for Animal Health Working Group on Animal Welfare.
“This is so exciting,” Zanella said. “I have invited the key scientists in the world to develop lecture material addressing specific topics in animal welfare. The course is a unique attempt to bring talented individuals from the different disciplines together.”
Students wind their way through lectures, scientific articles, interactive graphs and diagrams. They test their knowledge by assessing the welfare of animals in a variety of theoretical situations termed scenarios.
In one scenario they compare the welfare of a house cat and a barn cat. In another, two pig-weaning protocols must be evaluated.
“We want the students to make a decision based on what they have learned,” Zanella said. “Is A better than B and why? What information had the greatest impact in their decision-making process?”
Following the completion of a scenario, students will be able to discuss their assessment with the experts online.
Zanella pointed out that each scenario’s content and format was reviewed at the 2004 International Society for Applied Ethology Conference in Helsinki, Finland. The panel also provided an answer key to each scenario.
The course has drawn the attention of national and international organizations and institutions. Zanella was invited to universities in Mexico and Brazil to speak about the animal welfare course. Currently, there are nearly 30 interested institutions worldwide.
“So many things really depend on what we do here. There’s a tremendous interest,” says Richard Snider, a professor in the Department of Zoology at MSU and course collaborator.
According to Zanella, “teaching animal welfare is really important today not just to those in animal science, but to those in vet schools or zoology departments. Really anyone that works with animals – from lab rats to wildlife – can benefit.”
In the future, material from the course also could be modified and geared to undergraduates and younger students, like those involved with 4-H or The National FFA Organization.
“This course is ground zero because we network; we open up space where this information can be exchanged in a phenomenal way,” Zanella said. “We are opening the space for people from different schools and different fields to come and learn how to assess animal welfare.”
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