Animal judging – animal welfare and assessment

This series of articles will introduce animal judging – what it is, the life skills it helps youth to develop, where it can take youth and why everyone should try it!

The 2009 MSU Animal Welfare Judging Team. Photo credit: Faye Watson | MSU Extension
The 2009 MSU Animal Welfare Judging Team. Photo credit: Faye Watson | MSU Extension

This is the second article in a Michigan State University Extension series discussing how animal judging benefits 4-H members now and in all their future endeavors. Dr. Camie Heleski, instructor, coordinator and advisor of the Ag Tech Horse Management Program, member of the Animal Behavior and Welfare Group in the Department of Animal Science, and coach of the colligate welfare judging and assessment undergraduate team, provides insight on the animal welfare judging and assessment contest. Dr. Heleski has been coaching this team for approximately 10 years. The contest was developed as part of Dr. Heleski’s Doctor of Philosophy work, thus coaching became an extension of her work with developing the contest. Prior to animal welfare judging, Dr. Heleski participated in horse judging as a 4-H member for two years and as a college student for one year.        

Melissa: Can you briefly describe what welfare judging is?

Dr. Heleski: The Animal Welfare Judging/Assessment Contest is a way for college students to learn more about what animal welfare is in general and in relation to different species in different environments. It also provides students with the tools necessary to critically evaluate the welfare or well-being of an animal, as well as provide an ethical framework for further discussions. There is a live team assessment of animals in their given environment, such as dry dairy cows on a farm, laboratory mice being used for research or poultry in commercial housing, as well as three virtual scenarios individuals’ judge. There is usually at least one production animal, one exotic and one companion animal to assess.

Melissa: As a coach, what are the biggest benefits you see for individuals who judge?

Dr. Heleski: For students who participate in welfare judging, they learn about behaviors and physiological indicators of welfare. For anyone who cares for animals – pets, livestock, work, etc. – this is incredibly valuable knowledge. This judging contest also weaves in the ethics of animal welfare assessment so students learn to think about moral implications of welfare decisions and why or how different people assess scenarios in a certain way. In addition, like all type of judging, critical thinking and public speaking skills are practiced and strengthened.

Melissa: What has been your favorite part of coaching?

Dr. Heleski: When the kids really get it, that “ah-ha!” moment when they know how to assess welfare, that is one of the best parts. Hearing a really great set of oral reasons when the students put that “ah-ha!” moment into words to deliver to a judge is another great part of being a coach. It is also very rewarding to hear former team members recruit new students to join the welfare judging and assessment team. To hear students speak so highly of the experience, what they learned, and to urge others to try it tells me we are doing something very valuable that is good not only for the team members, but also for all the animal industries where our graduates take these skills. As the coach, I am still learning with the team members, both about the latest research in animal welfare science and how to adapt my coaching style for the dynamics of a particular team

Melissa: Besides content knowledge about how to assess welfare, what other skills are developed in judging that will benefit individuals outside of the arena?

Dr. Heleski: Ethical thinking is a major skill that will help students in various life scenarios. The kids practice public speaking, analysis of challenging situations, and how to balance multiple indicators and inputs to make a decision. All of these skills will serve them very well in life long after their time in welfare judging is over.

Melissa: What career possibilities can come from animal welfare judging?

Dr. Heleski: Participation in this judging activity seems to help students with admission to graduate school or veterinary school, so those are a few academic paths. Chelsey Shivley on the 2008 undergraduate team went on to obtain her DVM [Doctor of Veterinary Medicine] here at the College of Veterinary Medicine and is completing her PhD with Dr. Temple Grandin at Colorado State University, where she is also coaching their welfare judging teams. Melissa Liszewski, a member of the 2009 team, completed her master’s degree with me and now works for The Brooke , the international organization that strives to improve the lives of working equids around the world through education and treatment. Directly, there have been a few students that go on to be an animal welfare assessor or auditor for various programs. No matter what career path team members chose, they are critical thinkers with good communication skills and those are traits every employer looks for.

Melissa: What if a 4-H member wants to start judging before attending college, where should they start learning about and practicing judging?

Dr. Heleski: Right now there is no 4-H level for animal welfare judging, but that should not stop youth from learning more about animal welfare before college. If youth are interested in learning more about the judging team, the best place to start is the Intercollegiate Animal Welfare Judging/Assessment Contest website. There are sample scenarios, contest rules and background information on the contest. Two great resource books to begin understanding welfare science are Animal Welfare, 2nd edition by Appleby, Mench, Olsson and Hughes, as well as Stress and Animal Welfare by Broom and Johnson. Once 4-H members attend college, especially if they come to MSU, there are specific classes to take: ANS 200E, which is the introduction to animal welfare course, and ANS 300E, which is the class for team members.

Melissa: Would you recommend 4-H youth try judging before they go to college?

Dr. Heleski.: Yes. Judging of any species will be a great experience and teach youth many valuable lessons and skills.

Melissa: Thank you Dr. Heleski for taking the time to share your experiences and expertise as the collegiate animal welfare judging coach.

Next in the series will be an interview with Taylor Fabus, coach of the MSU Horse Judging Team. Other articles in this series include dairy judging and livestock judging.

Did you find this article useful?