From brown polo ponies to green iguanas, animal welfare anything but black and white

145 students participate in 2018 AVMA Animal Welfare Assessment Contest
Published on January 16, 2019
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Dr. Monique Pairis-Garcia has seen show cats in a new light thanks to the AVMA Animal Welfare Assessment Contest. As a veterinary student years ago, she participated in a scenario that involved assessing the welfare of show cats.

"There was an all-out argument if a cat would enjoy being in a carrier to go to the show. There were passionate views, and it made me realize people really think about that. It was a whole other world. I never thought about that, but I look at my cat differently now," said Dr. Pairis-Garcia, who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

She largely focuses on pig welfare, but exposure to another species helped her realize how different perspectives come into play when considering an animal's welfare. Dr. Pairis-Garcia also said that one of the strengths of the contest, begun in 2002, is the camaraderie among everyone involved, which inspired her to become a coach.

Contestants evaluate a polo pony
The AVMA Animal Welfare Assessment Contest teaches students to use science-based methods and reasoning to assess the welfare of animals in a variety of settings. This year's contest covered dairy goats, egg-laying ducks, and green iguanas and included a live assessment of polo ponies. (Photo by Sara Beugen/Shoot My Events)

"Even though it's a contest, it's very much a family. The coaches work together and are excited to see students' success. It creates an environment where everyone is excited to be there and learn," she said.

Thought process

The 2018 AVMA Animal Welfare Assessment Contest took place Nov. 16-18, at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. The competition teaches students to use science-based methods and reasoning to assess the welfare of animals in a variety of settings.

In the first part of the contest, three species­-based scenarios are presented. Each scenario consists of two hypothetical situations representing animals in typical environments. Scenarios may include physiologic data, video clips, photographs, behavioral responses, husbandry and housing information, and time budgets. After viewing each scenario, students are asked to rank the welfare of the animals presented. They are then provided time to prepare more detailed analyses they use to give a brief oral presentation to a panel of judges, arguing why one scenario demonstrates a higher level of welfare than the other. Knowledge of welfare science and the art of persuasion in the presentation are key factors used in scoring. The second part of the contest involves a live assessment of a real-world scenario.

Thirty-two teams from 22 universities participated this year. Among the three divisions, 19 undergraduate teams, 10 veterinary teams, and three graduate teams competed, plus 13 individuals. In all, 145 students entered the contest, representing mostly the U.S. and Canada, with one person from Italy. This year, scenarios involved dairy goats, egg-laying ducks, and green iguanas, and the live assessment involved polo ponies.

In addition to judging activities, programming included lecture sessions, which were taped for future use.

Keys to success

Jenny Schefski, a third-year veterinary student at CSU, took first in the overall individual category in the veterinary division. She said the contest has enriched her education.

"Instead of memorizing lists of diseases and looking at animals as a bunch of body systems, it challenges participants to look at the animal holistically. I enjoy learning about the behaviors unique to each species and how we as veterinarians can use our understanding of them to improve production and other outcomes," she said.

Schefski credited her win—and her team's fifth-place finish—to the weekly, two-hour–long journal club meetings with fellow veterinary students as well as animal science undergraduate and graduate students.

CSU's veterinary team poses with Dr. Grandin
The 2018 AVMA Animal Welfare Assessment Contest took place Nov. 16-18, 2018, at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Pictured is CSU's veterinary team (from left): Anais Rodriguez-Sanchez; Louana Cheung; Temple Grandin, PhD; Jenny Schefski; Haemin Park; and Sneha Krishnan. The team placed fifth overall in its division, and Schefski took first in the overall individual category in the veterinary division. (Courtesy of Jenny Schefski)

"I think most importantly, though, was that I chose to focus on how a given scenario could be improved, rather than all of the negative points. As a veterinarian, I want to help my clients improve the welfare of their pets by having a discussion about what they can do better and not get so focused on what they're doing wrong," Schefski said. "Most of my speeches this year involved plans for how I would help a hypothetical producer improve the welfare of animals in a given situation. Small changes can make a huge difference in animal welfare, and focusing on what someone is doing wrong isn't going to make them feel encouraged or empowered to change things. Most people want the best for their animals. They just need a little guidance sometimes."

Dr. Pairis-Garcia, who has coached the OSU veterinary team that placed first overall in its division, has found that first-time participants tend to focus initially on health, vaccination, prevalence of disease, and treatment protocols. By the end of the contest, they learn to think about valuable components outside the health realm, such as the behavior of the animals, what they want to do and are motivated to do, their mental state, and ethical components.

Another unique aspect of the contest is the on-site assessment portion, Dr. Pairis-Garcia said.

"When students apply knowledge they learned in class to real-world scenarios, it solidifies the concept that you can do animal welfare as a career," she said. "Plus, we have good scenario writers who make it complicated and frustrating. It's never black and white. There's never a clear answer," similar to what veterinarians experience in practice.


And the winner is …

The results of the 2018 AVMA Animal Welfare Assessment Contest are as follows:

Undergraduate Division

  • Live assessment, high-scoring individual: Madisen Baldwin, University of Kentucky.
  • Live assessment, high-scoring team: University of Minnesota, maroon team.
  • Overall individual: First place—Zach England, The Ohio State University, team 2. Second place—Kathryn McLellan, University of British Columbia, team A. Third place—Cassandra Carolino, University of Guelph. Fourth place—Brynn McLellan, University of British Columbia, team 1. Fifth place—Atticus Clark, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Overall team: First place—University of Minnesota, maroon team. Second place—Texas A&M University. Third place—The Ohio State University, team 2. Fourth place—University of California-Davis. Fifth place—University of British Columbia, team A.

Graduate Division

  • Live assessment, high-scoring individual: Melissa Cantor, University of Kentucky.
  • Live assessment, high-scoring team: Michigan State University.
  • Overall individual: First place—Quinn Rausch, University of Guelph. Second place—Alycia Drwencke, University of California-Davis. Third place—Hannah Phillips, University of Minnesota. Fourth place—Sarah MacLachlan, Michigan State University. Fifth place—Karli Chudeau, University of California-Davis.
  • Overall team: First place—University of Guelph. Second place—Michigan State University. Third place—University of California-Davis.

Veterinary Division

  • Live assessment, high-scoring individual: Cassandra Kroncke, Kansas State University.
  • Live assessment, high-scoring team: The Ohio State University.
  • Overall individual: First place—Jenny Schefski, Colorado State University. Second place—Olivia Child, Michigan State University. Third place—Emma Puckering, University of Guelph. Fourth place—Melanie Bizzarro, The Ohio State University. Fifth place—Jessica Plunkard, Virginia-Maryland.
  • Overall team: First place—The Ohio State University. Second place—University of Guelph. Third place—Michigan State University. Fourth place—Virginia-Maryland. Fifth place—Colorado State University.

Information about the 2019 AVMA Animal Welfare Assessment Contest will be posted at the website.

Related JAVMA content:

Students tested on animal welfare knowledge (March 15, 2018)