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Thursday, 25 April 2019 00:00

Learning from the best at CAWSEL

Written by  Heather Crawford

Australian PhD student at Murdoch University and 2018 CAWSEL participant, Heather Crawford, looks back at a very enriching experience during the two-week courses in Cambridge UK

I first heard about CAWSEL (Courses on Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law) from fellow Murdoch University student Jessica Rendle, who is also the Courses’ ambassador to students wishing to attend. Jessica enjoyed her experience at CAWSEL in 2016 so much that she has been promoting it ever since!

CAWSEL1As soon as I looked at the CASWEL content I knew I wanted to attend. I have always been interested in animal welfare and the science that underpins its improvement for animals, but I have never had the opportunity to study the subject officially. CAWSEL was offering not one, but four courses that were of interest to me. I could not possibly choose between the courses; if I was going to attend then I was going to attend all of them. Unfortunately, Australia is a great distance from the UK and (two) flights are expensive. Being near the end of my PhD and with limited income, I knew I would never be able to afford to attend CAWSEL, until Jess mentioned the Douglas Houghton Memorial Fund (DHMF). To honour the life’s work of Douglas Houghton, the DHMF sponsors students who wish to attend courses in the UK that specifically focus on improving animal welfare through science. Ultimately, I was absolutely thrilled to learn that I had been selected to attend the 2018 courses and I immediately started planning my trip!

The support staff for CAWSEL and St Catharine’s College were absolutely sensational. They provided lots of information about where to stay and recommended what to see whilst in Cambridge. Email responses were prompt and thankfully a reading list was provided, that gave an idea about the topics that would be included in the four courses. The first course covered Welfare Concepts and Assessment and Zoo Animal Welfare. It was wonderful to have the introduction to the course given by the famous Professor Donald Broom. He made us feel extremely welcome and took a personal interest in all of the attendees - all of us were from mixed science backgrounds and multiple countries (across the four courses I met people from Holland, Austria, Italy, Ireland, Hong Kong, Brazil and Turkey).

In the second course (Law and Companion Animal Welfare and Horse Welfare), Mr Mike Radford and others taught us about the evolution of the UK legal system and how, over the centuries, the law has adapted its view of animals. These changes were the result of UK culture extending empathy to animals and the law being updated to reflect the view that animals are not merely property but are also sentient and deserving of some legal protection. If you think this course sounds boring, it wasn’t! Mike made the subject interesting and used language that made it easy to absorb.

After learning about the law, we had several wonderful academics lecture us about the welfare of exotic wildlife, dogs, cats and horses. Dr Irene Rochlitz is one of the gurus who has deciphered cat behaviour over the last few decades and she has identified what cats kept in captivity ‘need’ to optimise their welfare. Her presentation on cats highlighted how people fail to account for the biological capabilities of different species when designing accommodation and administering basic husbandry. For example, while dogs in laboratories like to be able to see who is approaching them or who is living in the cage next door, cats benefit from having somewhere to hide whilst surveying their enclosure environment.

The companion animal course ended with a day dedicated to horses. As well as learning about horse stereotypies, Dr Sebastian McBride gave us truly remarkable insight into the neurobiology of horse brains, how they interpret stimuli and how they view people and other horses. I believe that even those who work with horses daily would learn something from this course!

Presented by Professor David Morton and Dr James Yeates, the third course covered Principles of Ethics in Relation to Animal Use. This course explored the ethics of using animals for human benefit by analysing various philosophies about the natural world. The use of animals for gain varies between countries and cultural attitudes, and not all animals are treated equally. This course was less formal than the first two and involved plenty of discussion by the group as examples of ethical conundrums were worked through to achieve positive outcomes for animals without neglecting the needs and expectations of people.

The final course presented by CAWSEL examined Farm Animal Welfare including: fish, chickens, cows and pigs. The information provided by the lecturers was surprising! For example, I had never considered that fish species differed in the length of time they take to die once removed from water, and how this variation meant some fish would experience prolonged suffering. This course focused on the science and how it is improving basic global standards for animal welfare in agriculture. It was interesting to learn about the variation within the different meat industries and how method and standards for euthanasia depend on the species and the quality of the equipment used.

When CAWSEL came to an end after a fortnight I was disappointed. I still had so many questions. That is always the sign of good science - you find the answer to one question only to find you have thought of five new questions! Having been back in Australia for six months now, I still find myself thinking about some of the topics that came up at CAWSEL, and about the possible solutions to improve the lives of animals. The knowledge that I absorbed during my time in Cambridge will guide my future and is upmost in my mind as I prepare for a career beyond my PhD.

The lecturers at CAWSEL were all outstanding and it was a privilege to learn from their experience. Above all, CAWSEL exposed me to strategies being pioneered by researchers all over the world to revolutionise industries where animals are used and abused. I would recommend that anyone with a basic understanding of biology and an interest in animals attend at least one of the offered courses. I could not choose between them and I am so very glad that I went to all four. I wish to extend a huge thank you to the organisers of CAWSEL, St Catharine’s College and the Douglas Houghton Memorial Fund for enabling me to have a wonderful experience that I will always remember.

Image courtesy CAWSEL: View of St Catharine’s College; 

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