Photo of UW-River Falls students who participated in the American Veterinary Medical Association Animal Welfare Assessment Contest held in November at UWRF. The students are working on one of the animal welfare judging projects that were part of the competition that included participants from 24 universities from North America and Europe. Contributed photo.

UW-River Falls students participating in the American Veterinary Medical Association Animal Welfare Assessment Contest held in November at UWRF work on one of the animal welfare judging projects that were part of the competition that included participants from 24 universities from North America and Europe. Contributed photo.

University team, individuals perform well against schools from North America, Europe

When a team of University of Wisconsin-River Falls students competed in a competition at their home campus that included peers from across North America and Europe, it was an opportunity to learn from experts and students about animal welfare.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Animal Welfare Assessment Contest held Nov. 17-19 was also an opportunity for UW-River Falls students to showcase their knowledge of how to care for animals.

A five-student team made up animal science majors of Emma Hamilton, Brooke Casey, Alli Matzek, Beth McIlquham and Lilly Streich placed third in the senior undergraduate division, defeating larger research universities. Matzek also placed fourth in the individual part of the competition. Student Shawna Sigl participated in the event’s graduate level.

Participating students said they didn’t feel that they had done especially well in the competition, in part because of its rigor. When team members learned they had placed third, they were surprised and heartened.

“At first I couldn’t believe it,” Casey said. “Then I realized that we really had done well, and it felt really good.”

As team members waited to hear how they had placed, their coach, Kate Creutzinger, assistant professor of animal welfare and behavior at UW-River Falls, waited with them. When their third-place finish was announced, Creutzinger let out a yell of excitement.

“It was great to see this team come together under challenging circumstances and perform so well,” said Creutzinger, who was hired by the Wisconsin Dairy Innovation Hub to study dairy cattle welfare and behavior.

Some 232 undergraduate, graduate, and veterinary students from 24 universities participated in the judging contest as they learned about animal welfare. The event began in 2002 at Michigan State University and has grown substantially since. It moves to different locations across the U.S. UW-River Falls will host the event again next year.

As part of this year’s contest, students were provided with information depicting living conditions for farmed bison, tortoises in a zoo, cage-free laying hens, and lab rats. Students studied those scenarios and worked to explain shortcomings of each situation and how to improve conditions for animals.

Contest participants faced tight timelines to assess animals’ conditions and prepare comments for judges. They felt pressure to perform well because their judges were animal welfare experts.

“It was stressful,” Hamilton said. “You have to really know what you’re talking about because you’re explaining animal welfare to people who are experts in their field. It can certainly feel intimidating at times.”

Sigl described participating in the event similarly, saying the time constraints were challenging.

“It feels like there’s no time to breathe,” Sigl said. “There is so much work to do in such a short amount of time to get ready for the judges.”

‘Important role to play’

Sigl and Hamilton said their animal welfare coursework helped prepare them for the rigors of the competition. UW-River Falls focuses on animal welfare with its Animal Welfare Lab, started in 2012, and the Humane Handling Institute (HHI), a training program for humane livestock handling begun in 2022 with the support of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Kurt Vogel, professor of animal welfare and behavior who oversees the university’s Humane Handling Institute, began work in 2019 to bring the contest to UW-River Falls. Hosting the event was delayed a couple of years because of the Coronavirus pandemic, but this year’s high turnout was evidence that interest it in has returned, he said, praising the work of university staff to make the event a success.

“Hosting this contest means a lot to us,” Vogel said. “We have been doing a lot to build up our animal welfare program, and this was an opportunity to show that we have a high-quality program here.”

As part of the event, attendees toured the Minnesota Zoo and the Jon-De Farm in rural Baldwin.

With animal welfare becoming a topic that people are increasingly aware of, hosting the competition allows UW-River Falls to help teach about it, Vogel said.

“We feel we have an important role to play in helping educate people about animal welfare and why it matters,” he said. “This event serves as a way for us to do that.”

Learning about animal welfare certainly has impacted Cassey. When she arrived at UW-River Falls, Casey planned to become a veterinarian. She grew up loving animals and knew she wanted to help them as part of her profession.

Then Casey studied about animal welfare, and now she is considering working more specifically in that field.

“Before this year, it never occurred to me that there was another avenue besides being a vet,” she said. “Now, through my work in animal welfare coursework, I know that there are other options.”

Sigl’s story is similar. She wanted to work as a veterinarian but is now studying for her master’s degree in agriculture education with an animal welfare and behavior focus. She took a course in animal welfare and now plans to work assessing and improving dairy cow welfare.

“Once I got into this work and began to understand it better,” she said, “I realized the big, positive impact you can make in animal welfare. That is a big motivator for me.”

Hamilton is a senior from Adams, Casey is a junior from New London, Matzek is a junior from Appleton, McIlquham is a senior from Chippewa Falls; and Streich is a junior from Clear Lake. Sigl, of Seymour, is seeking a master’s degree in agricultural education with an animal welfare and behavior focus.

Written by UW-River Falls University Communications and Marketing

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