What is the Animal Welfare and Research Institute all about?
In a word, the institute is all about wellness. As a trained veterinarian, I can tell you that our field is really fabulous at getting sick animals back to health. However, we need to learn much more about preventing death and disease in the first place. We want to prevent needless deaths, as in cases of unwanted dogs, cats and horses, so that animals can first survive and then enjoy good health. The Institute will support exactly this type of research – as long as it is non-invasive and does not harm study animals – and we will do so in a way that empowers not only research scientists, but also practicing veterinarians, companion animal owners, trainers, farmers and anyone else who wants to be involved in promoting animal welfare. Finally, by elevating the breadth and scope of funding opportunities available, we want to encourage veterinary students to see the field of animal welfare research as a viable and rewarding career path.
In what ways will this research be empowering to so many different types of people?
There are two specific ways. First, we’re seeking to encourage cross-disciplinary research. The fact is that even within the medical community, animal doctors and human doctors rarely talk to one another. So we immediately want to promote that type of collaboration. But we see roles for so many other disciplines as well, everything from psychology to epidemiology to physiology – and even fields like computer science and engineering. There’s a wealth of evidence suggesting that when researchers are exposed to other disciplines, it fosters better and more innovative work.
We’ll also be empowering individual pet owners and others who live or work with animals by enlisting their help as citizen scientists. Our goal is to promote the growth of a virtual community of people who not only submit data, but also see the results of their work in accessible, targeted ways. For instance, if you have a domestic short-hair cat, you’re naturally going to be drawn to different types of studies than someone who trains horses. Unless, of course, you have both cats and horses!
What types of studies will you fund?
We like to say we’ll fund the studies no one else can. Funding for research on animal welfare and wellness just hasn’t kept pace with the types of things we do for humans. For instance, a lot has been done to study causes and prevention of childhood asthma, which we know has been on the rise in recent years. Anecdotally, there are indications that animals are experiencing the same increases. But we don’t have any hard evidence to back that up, much less specific scientific guidance on what we should do about it. The same is true of cancer research in animals. There are some dog breeds that are especially susceptible to certain forms of cancer, but we don’t have any idea why. Imagine the lives we can save and the suffering we can prevent if we can start finding answers to all these questions.
We also want to focus on new, emerging and topical areas of inquiry, like food safety, obesity, and the impact of endocrine disrupters in our environment. Who knows how what we learn about diseases in animals will inform our understanding of diseases in humans?
On a personal level, what drew you into this kind of work in the first place?
I can still remember being 9 years old and sitting on the floor of my Minnesota farmhouse telling my Chihuahua, Mickey Joe, that I was going to grow up to be a veterinarian. To be perfectly honest, it’s been my personal and professional passion ever since. I want animals to have the very best of care that we can give them – whether they are our loyal companions, our trusted coworkers, farm animals, or live in the wild. They deserve no less. American Humane Association’s Animal Welfare and Research Institute will advance such an effort.