From left: Animal science professors Ian Duncan and Tina Widowski and Prof. Derek Haley, Population Medicine, pose with trophies waiting for the winners of a North American animal welfare judging competition to be held this year at U of G.

Which horse farm would you judge to be better in terms of animal welfare?

On farm one, the horses have 50 acres of pasture and spend most of their days outside grazing. Farm two provides stalls that are 3.7 metres by 3.7 metres for the horses; they stay in their stalls most of the day and night but do get regular exercise. The horses on farm two score higher in body conditioning, but have more respiratory problems than the horses on farm one.

Made your choice? Can you defend that choice based on objective measures of animal welfare?

That’s what more than 80 university students will be expected to do when they arrive at U of G for North America’s annual Animal Welfare Judging Competition, Nov. 17 to 18. This will be the first time the event has been held in Canada.

More than 10 years ago, a group of professors at Michigan State University were looking for a way to help their animal science and agriculture students become more interested in animal welfare issues. They opted to borrow from the approach used in livestock judging competitions that have long been popular in 4-H. Students competing individually and in teams are given scenarios to compare. Then they have to give short presentations explaining why they chose one over the other, and are judged on their use of evidence to support their decisions.

The University of Guelph has sent students to this competition from the beginning, and U of G students regularly bring home trophies. At first, the events were only open to agriculture students, but about five years ago the American Veterinary Medical Association sponsored an expansion to include veterinary students, recognizing the increasing importance of animal welfare to the veterinary profession. Graduate students are now included in the competitions as well.

With those additions, the scope of the competition has expanded beyond livestock to include companion animals, zoo animals and fish. Some scenarios are described in words; some involve actual visits to see the living conditions of the animals.

Animal science professor Tina Widowski has helped to coach Guelph competitors in the past and is one of the organizers of this year’s event. “We have the biggest program in animal welfare in North America and one of the biggest in the world,” she says, explaining why U of G teams are such consistent winners. “We have three teams: undergrads, grad students and DVM students.”

Prof. Derek Haley, Population Medicine, is also a coach and says the Guelph teams practise and study together. “It takes a lot of extra time to prepare for the competition.” This year, a former competitor and recent grad, Jackie Jacobs, will also be helping with the coaching.

“One of the important things this contest accomplishes is that it doesn’t just build knowledge; it creates leaders,” adds Haley. “The component where you have to explain your reasons for your decisions means that it’s not about your opinions; it’s about what the science says. These have to be evidence-based decisions, and you need to be able to communicate that effectively.”

The competitors are also under pressure to quickly organize their facts and make timely decisions. Twenty minutes after seeing the scenarios, they need to be able to stand up in front of the judges and explain their choices. “And the scenarios are not easy to judge,” says Widowski. “They’ll cover a variety of issues, including health, housing, training techniques, contact with other animals and with humans. The participants need to know what the needs of the various animals are to make the right decisions.”

Widowski says that Guelph is a natural place to hold the competition: “We have a strong culture of animal welfare here.” In some of the other schools that send teams, there are no courses offered in animal welfare. Their students are teaching themselves the information they need because they are interested in the issues. Some schools also provide course credits for students who compete, and Widowski is looking into making credits possible for U of G students.

The growing list of sponsors for the event includes the American Veterinary Medicine Association, Dean Foods, Tim Hortons, the Canadian Association of Laboratory Animal Science, Harmony Organics, and U of G’s Ontario Agricultural College and Ontario Veterinary College.

This year’s judges will be Profs. Alice Crook, University of Prince Edward Island; Jeff Rushen, University of British Columbia; Ruth Newberry, Washington State University; and Michele Guerin, Georgia Mason and Pat Turner from the University of Guelph.

The competition includes opportunities for the students to meet informally and discuss animal welfare with the expert judges. Widowski says each judge will also present a seminar for the participants, providing a kind of mini-conference at the start of the competition.

“The judges are also passionate about these issues,” adds Haley. “Animal welfare used to be a bit of a fringe subject. Now we understand that anybody who is going to have a career working with animals needs to know the science of animal welfare.”