PennVet | Examining Animal Welfare
New Bolton Center Kennett Square, PA
Emergencies & Appointments:
Ryan Hospital Philadelphia, PA

Examining Animal Welfare

By: Louisa Shepard Published: Feb 24, 2017

Opportunities to explore the concept and the complexities of animal welfare continue to grow at Penn Vet, with several important developments this academic year.

First-year students now have an animal welfare class included in their mandatory curriculum. An in-demand animal welfare elective is offered to second-year students. And a transformational, $5 million gift will establish an endowed chair for a professorship in equine medicine at New Bolton Center, with an emphasis on equine welfare.

Such developments build upon well-established efforts at Penn Vet. For instance, Dr. James Serpell has long served as Professor of Ethics & Animal Welfare and, as Director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, examines the complex practical and moral issues surrounding human-animal interactions. Dr. Thomas Parsons continues to spearhead the groundbreaking initiative he started more than 15 years ago, researching a housing model for sows as an alternative to gestation crates. Penn Vet also has outstanding experts in animal behavior, working dogs, shelter medicine, and other fields connected to animal welfare.

Said Penn Vet Dean Joan Hendricks, “Penn Vet is dedicated to providing students with opportunities to explore animal welfare in real-world contexts, while developing their own perspectives.”

New Classes Expand Animal Welfare Training

Launched this past fall, the Introduction to Animal Welfare elective course met for two hours, once a week, for 12 weeks. Offered to 30 second-year students, the new elective proved enormously popular, with more than three times that number of applicants.

Dr. Meghann Pierdon, Penn Vet Lecturer, worked with Parsons to design and organize the course. “The elective coursework builds a framework for thinking about solutions regarding any species and its welfare, and the student’s own personal ethical framework,” she said.

“The goal is to train veterinarians to speak as experts in the area of animal welfare,” added Parsons, Associate Professor of Swine Production Medicine and Director of the Swine Teaching and Research Center at New Bolton Center.

Parsons is one of the founding members of the new American College of Animal Welfare. Pierdon will be the first swine veterinarian in the United States to earn board certification through this specialty college. She created the elective course at Penn Vet as part of her board certification training.

“There is science to this. There are ways to measure welfare,” Pierdon said. “It is important to have the students open their minds to the many new methods and ideas that are out there.”

“Through this course and through the new board certification, we are trying to create a standard for education and train veterinarians to be leaders in the field of animal welfare,” Parsons noted.

The course covered current topics and techniques, as well as history, ethics, and physiological and behavioralassessment of welfare. Pierdon and Parsons each taught sessions, along with several of their Penn Vet colleagues: Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Director of the Animal Behavior Service at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital; Dr. Sue McDonnell, Director of Penn Vet’s Equine Behavior Program; Dr. Brittany Watson, Director of Shelter Medicine and Community Engagement; Dr. Meggan Hain, Staff Veterinarian at Penn Vet’s Marshak Dairy; Dr. Sherrill Davison, Associate Professor of Avian Medicine and Pathology; and Dr. James Marx, Assistant Professor of Pathobiology.

“We worked to have the class represent as many animal species as possible that are under human care,” Pierdon explained. “The students see the whole spectrum.” The course also included a Saturday field trip to New Bolton Center, where students learned about Penn Vet’s pioneering housing model for sows at the Swine Center; natural equine behaviors within the semi-feral pony herd; and best practices in dairy cow management at the Marshak Dairy.

The students and professors discussed in depth, by species, the “five freedoms” of animal welfare, and the implications in real-life situations: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

“I think the complexity comes in when we try to take into account all five of those freedoms. You aren’t going to have a clear answer,” Pierdon said.

In classes and labs, the students were asked to weigh various factors in making choices. For example, students observed a sow and her piglets to see if behaviors differed when the farrowing crate is open or closed. They determined the sow was more active when the crate was open, but the piglets nursed less, indicating that the sow had more freedom but the piglets had less time to suckle, and therefore less freedom from hunger.

“The farrowing crate is a typical example of the complexity of welfare issues because the crate confines the sow, but also protects the piglets,” Pierdon said.

Students also grappled with other real-world scenarios, such as the trap, neuter, and release of feral cats. How do these efforts impact people who live around the colonies, and what are the obligations of people who feed feral cats? Or reintroducing wildlife to roam free in a wildlife park: what ethical obligations do humans have for the care and welfare of wild animals?

Reflecting on his experience in the elective course, student John Hurst, V’19, said, “I learned how we can apply scientific methods to assess how animals cope with the artificial environments we constrain them to. But even then, decisions will come down to making a moral or ethical judgment.”

“To make that judgment you have to study the dilemma and, in a diverse group, weigh different obligations to animals and society,” he continued. “The format of this welfare course allowed us to practice exactly that, and to hear and respect differing opinions.”

Added Katherine Pruett, V’19, “There are many difficult questions when it comes to the welfare of all species. Discussing these issues from many perspectives—that ofesearchers, producers, consumers, veterinarians, and the animals themselves—helped to understand the issues in depth. With many of these topics there are no black and white answers, and as such I appreciated the many perspectives we gained from this course.”

In addition to the elective course for second-year students, a mandatory, two-hour lecture for first-year students is now included as part of the Introduction to Clinical Veterinary Medicine course. The lecture is based on the first session of the elective course.

“We would like all students to have a common foundation in animal welfare,” Parsons said. “The topic is fundamental in so many aspects of veterinary medicine.”

Transformational Gift is Focused on Equine Welfare

On a colic call, the first in his new job as a veterinarian, Dr. Harry Werner, V’74, drove up to the farm of Seth and Lucy Holcombe in Granby, Connecticut. Then he went to work, confirming the Morgan gelding had a colon impaction, and spending hours saving his life.

“I remember all the nuances of it,” Werner recalled, even the gelding’s name, Baythorne. “This was the first colic I encountered as a new graduate. This was a chance to prove myself.”

Werner didn’t know it then, but not only was he proving himself, he was starting a lifelong friendship and collaboration with the Holcombes.

The four-decade relationship has resulted in a transformational gift of $5 million by the estate of Seth and Lucy Holcombe to establish an endowed chair named the Dr. Harry Werner Professorship in Equine Medicine at New Bolton Center.

The professorship will include teaching, research, and clinical outreach, with an emphasis on equine welfare and wellness—topics of utmost importance to Werner and the Holcombes.

Penn Vet is conducting an international search for candidates, with a goal of awarding the professorship in 2017.

“Harry is a very distinguished alumnus, and we are extremely proud of his achievements globally to support equine welfare. This will provide a permanent tribute to him,” said Dean Hendricks.

According to Hendricks, it is “incredibly important” that Penn Vet is now able, with the Werner Chair, to develop a program that will provide guidance and support to all who love horses.

“Even more than for other species, people who own horses often are not fully aware of their needs. Their dual role of being athletes and companions can complicate their care,” she explained.

The professorship will be the centerpiece of what Penn Vet intends to become a broader program for equine wellness and welfare, attracting international speakers and reaching out to populations of working horses in need.

This gift will allow Penn Vet to truly take a lead in providing direction on equine well-being and welfare to both our profession and the equine industry,” said Dr. Gary Althouse, Chairman of the Department of Clinical Studies at New Bolton Center. “The ability to dedicate significant efforts to these critical initiatives is truly transformational.”

Althouse said the new equine professorship builds upon and expands New Bolton Center’s initiatives for large animal welfare, including specialty training for board certification by the new American College of Animal Welfare.

Although Werner and his wife, Susan, were close friends with the Holcombes for decades, the gift came as a surprise. A family lawyer delivered the news after Lucy Holcombe’s death at age 91 in January of last year. Seth Holcombe died at age 91 in 2009.

“We had no idea,” said Werner, about the “wonderful” donation in his honor. “Susan and I feel responsible for making sure this gift does what the Holcombes wanted it to do. We want this to enhance the health and welfare of the horse.”

The Holcombes’ nephew and niece, Shepherd Holcombe and Nancy Hinman, are trustees of the estate. Both said the gift is a fitting honor to Werner, and they are pleased with the plans that are in motion.

“Everyone cares so much about this, and it has been handled so well, by Penn, and Harry and Susan,” Hinman said, adding that her aunt and uncle “adored” Werner as a veterinarian, confidant, and friend.

Shepherd Holcombe said his aunt and uncle lived a “modest and thrifty life.” The gift is “a marvelous act of generosity and friendship, and indicative of the high degree of respect they had for Harry,” he said.

The Werners much admired and respected the Holcombes as well, considering them family. “We shared many common values,” Werner said of their friendship. “They were people of great common sense, who believed in taking responsibility for yourself and your animals.”

Werner, who calls himself a “horse doctor,” has dedicated his life and career to the care and welfare of animals through his practice, Werner Equine, in North Granby, and his continued service to veterinary professional organizations at state, national, and international levels.

He was the 2009 President of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and is now a part of the Welfare and Public Policy Advisory Council. As president, he helped found the International Forum for Working Equids, an online forum to share information about the health and welfare of working horses, donkeys, and mules.

For the AVMA, Werner serves on the Welfare Committee, and is a liaison to the Unwanted Horse Coalition as well as an equine welfare project in the Dominican Republic. He also serves on the World Equine Veterinary Association’s Board of Directors.

Werner speaks internationally and has authored many articles on equine welfare, lameness, pre-purchase exams, farrier-veterinarian relationships, and veterinary ethics.

The Holcombes had a great interest in Werner’s work in his practice and beyond, and they engaged in long discussions about horses over the years. It was their shared passion for the care of horses, Werner believes, that led to their commitment to the professorship at New Bolton Center.

“As long as the health and welfare of the horse is kept as the goal, all other things will fall into place,” Werner said. “I shared that with Seth and Lucy way back when, and that resonated with them.”