EAST LANSING, Mich. – Though a tiger in the Berlin Zoo and adairy cow in Wisconsin don’t have much in common, each animal hasspecific welfare needs that must be addressed. But assessing thoseneeds is by no means a simple task.
Michigan State University isnow one of only a handful of institutions offering training in thescientific assessment of animal welfare, bringing qualitativemeasurements to an area long left to the subjective, and even theemotional.
Department of Animal Science associate professorAdroaldo Zanella developed the idea for the online graduate-levelcourse. It’s designed to prepare students to scientifically assessanimal welfare in real-life situations and establish a common language.
Animalwelfare has garnished increasing attention from a general public whowants evidence that animals, in zoos or on farms, are treated humanely.This issue also has an economic impact on the agricultural industrywhere an ill or compromised animal may mean lost revenue. From a tigerin a zoo to a dairy cow on a farm, students learn to scientificallyevaluate a variety of animals living in different situations.
“Inthe past, animal welfare was viewed as a very subjective type ofdiscipline,” Zanella said. “Too often we make assumptions on what isgood for animals by looking at things from a human perspective and thisis a mistake.”
Offering the course online to students conquersthe challenges teaching such a multifaceted topic presents. No oneinstitution has the world’s top experts in fields such as animal law,the physiological indicators of stress, ethics and economics. Theonline course can bring them all to students, no matter where theexperts are located.
The course offers students the opportunityto learn from the world’s top animal scientists – from the UnitedStates, Great Britain, Australia and Canada. The virtual classroompermits students to pose questions to instructors who are states andeven oceans away.
In its first semester students from MSU, Purdueand the University of Wisconsin can expect to see their initial lecturedesigned by David Fraser of the University of British Columbia,Vancouver. Fraser is a key figure in animal welfare science and is theNorth American member of the International Organization for AnimalHealth Working Group on Animal Welfare.
“This is so exciting,”Zanella said. “I have invited the key scientists in the world todevelop lecture material addressing specific topics in animal welfare.The course is a unique attempt to bring talented individuals from thedifferent disciplines together.”
Students wind their way throughlectures, scientific articles, interactive graphs and diagrams. Theytest their knowledge by assessing the welfare of animals in a varietyof 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.
“Wewant the students to make a decision based on what they have learned,”Zanella said. “Is A better than B and why? What information had thegreatest impact in their decision-making process?”
Following the completion of a scenario, students will be able to discuss their assessment with the experts online.
Zanellapointed out that each scenario’s content and format was reviewed at the2004 International Society for Applied Ethology Conference in Helsinki,Finland. The panel also provided an answer key to each scenario.
Thecourse has drawn the attention of national and internationalorganizations and institutions. Zanella was invited to universities inMexico and Brazil to speak about the animal welfare course. Currently,there are nearly 30 interested institutions worldwide.
“So manythings really depend on what we do here. There’s a tremendousinterest,” says Richard Snider, a professor in the Department ofZoology at MSU and course collaborator.
According to Zanella,“teaching animal welfare is really important today not just to those inanimal science, but to those in vet schools or zoology departments.Really anyone that works with animals – from lab rats to wildlife – canbenefit.”
In the future, material from the course also could bemodified and geared to undergraduates and younger students, like thoseinvolved with 4-H or The National FFA Organization.
“This courseis ground zero because we network; we open up space where thisinformation can be exchanged in a phenomenal way,” Zanella said. “Weare opening the space for people from different schools and differentfields to come and learn how to assess animal welfare.”
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