Six Colorado State University veterinary students meet weekly over lunch to chew on sandwiches and ways to make the health and safety of animals better.

This isn’t the plot to a new movie about a troop of superheroes saving the world, one puppy at a time – although, it could be. It’s just another Thursday for CSU’s Animal Welfare Judging Team, which explores ethical and scientific issues around the well-being of animals.

The small team turned into the dream team when it claimed first place at the Intercollegiate Animal Welfare Judging/Assessment Contest at The Ohio State University Nov. 12-13.

“Animal welfare is allowing animals to exist to the extent possible according to their natural tendencies, while ensuring optimal health and well-being” said Dr. Melinda Frye, associate dean of veterinary academic and student affairs at the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “It’s important for veterinarians to have the knowledge and skills to recognize when an animal isn’t experiencing optimal welfare.”

The international competition was created to promote animal welfare science to undergraduate, graduate and veterinary students by blending it with the traditional concept of livestock judging.

Teams and individuals compete by assessing a variety of animals in different scenarios, using science-based methods, research and reasoning to offer their evaluations of the animal’s welfare. Students gain hands-on experience and an in-depth introduction to animal welfare for a variety of animals, even for animals not traditionally perceived to have welfare evaluations, such as a mink.

In its 15th year, the competition challenged teams to evaluate various scenarios for laboratory guinea pigs, meat sheep, purebred dogs purchased from breeders and laying hens.

“In one of the scenarios, we explained the advantages and disadvantages of a poultry unit changing from conventional systems, such as cage and floor housing, to a newer system that allows animals to express more natural behaviors,” said veterinary team coach and third-year veterinary student Kelly Arthur.

Arthur is joined on the team by first-year veterinary student Anais Sanchez Rodriguez, and second-year veterinary students Kevin Sio, Claire Hovenga, Angela Varnum, Louana Cheung, and Tanya Lyakhova.

The team won first place overall, triumphing over nine other veterinary teams competing. Angela Varnum was awarded second place for her individual assessments, and Louana Cheung took third place.

“Veterinary students often go into the field because we’re interested in the well-being and care of animals. This competition dove into the ethical questions about animals, and required us to eliminate our personal bias about what we believe successful animal welfare looks like and use scientific evidence to help us determine the best solution for the animals,” said Arthur.

CSU’s graduate team also won first place out of three graduate teams competing. Individuals Miriam Martin and Rachel West took first and third place respectively out of 12 individual graduate students.

A leader in animal welfare

Students at CSU began competing in the competition in 2013, when founding coach and then Ph.D. student Dr. Chelsey Shivley, who studied under Dr. Temple Grandin at CSU, channeled her passion for working with students and created the CSU Animal Welfare Judging Team.

“Having a national presence in this area is so exciting and really demonstrates that we have the skills and expertise at CSU to be a leader in this area,” said Dr. Frye. “Certainly Dr. Temple Grandin has been visionary in this regard and continues to lead and inspire us in these efforts.”

Beyond the competing team, a student-led group at CSU created the campus-wide Animal Welfare Science Club. The club is open to students of all academic levels and creates opportunities to discuss and explore ethical and scientific issues in animal welfare.

The club will continue meeting throughout the spring, and the team will reassemble for the competition next fall.

“The students’ commitment to attending meetings and researching the species is what makes us a first-place team,” said Arthur. “I’m also thankful for Dr. Shivley’s legacy and experience with the competition, which she passed to me and others on the team.”

The Animal Welfare Judging Team was sponsored by the AVMA, Zoetis, Royal Canin and CSU SLiCE.