History of the Contest

In 2001 faculty members from Michigan State University (MSU) and Purdue University presented the idea of promoting animal welfare science to university students by coupling it with the more traditional concept of livestock judging to the International Society for Applied Ethology. In 2002 MSU hosted the first Animal Welfare Judging and Assessment Contest (AWJAC) for four teams representing four universities (MSU, University of Guelph, University of Wisconsin, and Purdue University).

In 2014, schools from across North American brought a total of 28 teams, 116 participants to compete. Originally the contest was for undergraduate students only, but it now consists of three divisions: undergraduate, graduate and veterinary students. (The veterinary division was initiated in 2008 with the assistance of the American Veterinary Medical Association.). Initially the AWJAC focused on livestock species; now it covers production, companion, laboratory and exotic animals.

The AWJAC relies on hypothetical, realistic computer-viewed scenarios containing performance, health, physiologic and behavioral data. These are evaluated by students individually to determine which facility has a higher level of welfare. Each student then presents their rationale orally to judges with expertise in animal welfare science and specific knowledge of the species they are judging. Students also participate in a team assessment exercise, typically conducted at an operating animal facility. Teams of three to five students give presentations to a panel of judges; this might consist of their recommendations for welfare-related changes at the facility.

Students are surveyed at the end of each contest to obtain their perceptions of the AWJAC. Over 95% of participants believe the AWJAC is a valuable exercise, feel they have increased their knowledge about animal welfare science, and would recommend the AWJAC to peers (n=429). In response to student feedback, the format of the contest was revised in 2006, and an invited speaker program was added. This educational component has been extremely well received.

While the assessment of various aspects of animal welfare can be objective and quantifiable, judgment decisions of where on the welfare continuum is considered acceptable, preferred or unacceptable often comes down to ethics-based choices. The AWJAC teaches students to integrate science-based knowledge with ethical values for an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving.