Heather Bacon is veterinary welfare and outreach manager at the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education at Edinburgh vet school. Here she outlines the role of the new centre, and how she got involved
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THE UK has robust legal protection for the welfare of animals, and, on gaining membership of the RCVS, vets declare that ‘My constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of animals committed to my care’. But how many of us are really engaged with the vast spectrum of welfare issues, and how quickly does routine work swamp our enthusiasm for a subject that is central to our role and function as vets?⇓
There is certainly a desire within our profession for accessing further animal welfare educational material. A recent explosion in postgraduate courses in animal welfare and behaviour has sprung up, and, here at Edinburgh, up to one-third of the students studying for the Masters in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare are veterinary graduates, indicating that, at least in part, the veterinary undergraduate course is not yet meeting the needs of the profession in terms of delivering animal welfare education.
At the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, a generous grant from Madame Jeanne Marchig, a longstanding campaigner in the field of animal welfare, has supported the founding of the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education (JMICAWE). Madame Marchig recognised the deficiency in animal welfare education experienced by many veterin-ary graduates and, in partnership with the Edinburgh vet school, has developed the first centre in Europe to focus on international veterinary welfare education. The role of the centre is diverse, its vision committed to improving the quality of life for all animals through education and training and by influencing policy both in the UK and overseas.
My own involvement with the new centre came about as a result of experiences gained working abroad. Working overseas in unfamiliar cultures and tackling language barriers can be challenging, but after graduating from the University of Bristol – and inspired by the animal welfare teaching provided by John Webster – I had a hankering to use my skills overseas.
At university and after graduating I undertook projects with free-ranging wildlife and working equids in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, but my first taste of Asia came in 2007, when I arrived at the Animals Asia Foundation's bear rescue centre in the Sichuan province of China. Founded by Jill Robinson MBE in 1998, the foundation is a charity that works with the governments of China, Hong Kong and Vietnam to end the trade in bear parts and the farming of bears for bile, to end the consumption of cats and dogs, and to improve captive wildlife welfare across Asia (www.animalsasia.org).
The charity's approach is constructive and collaborative. Its bear rescue centres in China and Vietnam are large employers of local people, and its education programmes, which are run in cities across China, aim to raise awareness of the countless welfare issues faced by animals in Asia.
As the charity's veterinary director, my role involved working with Chinese and Vietnamese colleagues, as well as the western veterinary team, to coordinate rescues of bears (in extreme physical and mental distress) from bear bile farms; partnering with local animal shelters to provide veterinary advice and support throughout the rescues of hundreds of dogs traded for meat by unlicensed traders; and dealing with the immediate human and animal welfare issues generated by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.
This provided me with an opportunity to gain an insight into the diverse cultural, social and economic factors that may influence animal welfare practice and policy in an international context, as well as the work being done by veterinary associations within China to develop clinical skills training.
Additional stints working in India and Indonesia with the charities Wildlife SOS and International Animal Rescue further exposed me to the deficiencies in veterinary clinical skills and animal welfare education faced by vets across the globe. Increasingly aware that my work overseas involved ‘fire-fighting’ these deficiencies, I was excited to accept the opportunity to work at the JMICAWE, supported by the Animals Asia Foundation.
My role involves working within the vet school, in the EU, and in India and China, and provides me with a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between academic expertise and grassroots charities working on veterinary welfare issues, as well as forging academic partnerships and encouraging curriculum development at institutions in China and India. Working on issues including rabies control, street dog and feral cat management, clinical skills teaching, humane euthanasia, captive wildlife management and animal alternatives in veterinary education and research, the centre provides a holistic hub of expertise on a number of welfare challenges regularly faced by vets in the UK and overseas, and supports sustainable education on the topics of animal welfare science, ethics and law.
On a global level, awareness of animal welfare issues is increasing, and I'm excited to be working in a role where I can make a positive contribution to the abilities of the vets dealing with these issues.