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Without judgement

Friday, 1 March 2019  
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VetScript Editor's pick: March 2019

For someone who is completely at home with the often solitary act of long-distance swimming, MPI Senior Animal Welfare Adviser Jen Jamieson is also adept at putting herself in other people’s shoes. She speaks to Jacqui Gibson about the importance of having that kind of understanding to achieve buy-in for animal welfare reform.


If Jen Jamieson had to name her superpower, she’d undoubtedly select her uncanny ability to hang out in cold water for hours on end. “I’m weirdly good at it,” says Jen.

Originally from the UK, Jen is based in Wellington and is a Senior Animal Welfare Adviser for the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). “I do a lot of long-distance, ocean swimming,” she says. “I am good at being cold, and really good at being numb.”

So good, in fact, that when she and three mates swam the English Channel five years ago they were the fastest women’s relay team with a time of 10 hours and 40 minutes. Between them they swam 21 miles (33.8 kilometres) in tepid, 15-degree seas. None wore a wetsuit.

A zoology scientist with a master’s degree and PhD in animal behaviour and animal welfare, Jen moved to New Zealand four years ago after landing a job with MPI. One of her first tasks was to help develop regulations for the Animal Welfare Act when it was strengthened in 2015 following a government review. Regulations developed to date cover three main areas: the standards for the care of and conduct towards animals; surgical and painful procedures; and live animal exports.

“It was an amazing first project for me. We carried out five weeks of consultation on 91 animal welfare regulatory proposals. Public meetings were held throughout the country at six regions. We had the time pressure of wanting to have the proposals relating to calf welfare in place for the 2016 bobby calf season, which we achieved. And we tackled some really challenging topics, such as the proposal to stop the docking of dogs’ tails.”

Neither the regulatory nor the consultation work was new to Jen. In the UK she’d spent three years with the Soil Association, an organic certification body, implementing the then new AssureWel project. The project was led by the association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the University of Bristol. It aimed to improve farm animal welfare on farms through the development and implementation of welfare outcome assessments within farm assurance schemes. Jen helped to develop and implement assessment protocols for species such as laying hens, dairy cows, pigs and sheep, and encouraged other stakeholders in the UK and Europe to use them.

Last year she published a paper explaining why some farmers struggled to implement the programme.

“Farmers told us we needed to better understand their perceptions of risk and practicality when it came to designing an on-farm programme. They also wanted to be involved early in the methodology design to achieve a better sense of buy-in. I think programmes like AssureWel definitely play a part in improving animal welfare. But to be successful long term, we have to understand what motivates the people whose behaviour we want to change, and acknowledge the barriers they face. You have to put yourself in the shoes of others before you can figure out good, workable solutions that will make a difference in the real world.”

It’s this idea that has become central to Jen’s career. Before starting her zoology degree at the University of Bristol, she took a year out to go horseback mustering on remote cattle
stations in Australia. That same year, she joined Australia’s polo industry working as a stable hand and groom. In 2006, before starting her master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh, Jen based herself in Africa for a year, first as a research intern and then as a horse safari yard manager and back-up rider.

“Each overseas experience was amazing. In Australia, the scale of the land and the conditions people worked in were a real eye-opener. In Africa, being among the wildlife and understanding the dynamic between promoting wildlife conservation, the income from tourism and the needs and safety of the local communities and farmers was pretty insightful. I learned a lot about how people in different industries work with animals, and what concerns them. I suppose I was always really conscious to approach each situation without judgement. It was definitely a time in my life when I really realised the importance of working with people to improve animal welfare.”

This theme arose again at the end of her PhD study at the Royal Veterinary College in 2013. Funded by the RSPCA and Britain’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Jen’s thesis looked at the role of education in shaping the views and consumer actions of adolescents aged 14 and 15. Over four years, she surveyed approximately 640 students and evaluated three farm animal welfare education programmes.

Overall, she found that adolescents reported caring about farm animal welfare at a similar rate to adults, but had very little knowledge about how to improve the welfare of farm animals as consumers. Students themselves, teachers and the curriculum were all barriers to improving the students’ knowledge and taking action.

For example, students weren’t convinced the topic was cool enough to warrant their attention. Teachers found animal welfare a controversial topic and lacked confidence teaching it. The curriculum was full and emphasised exam subjects, meaning animal welfare was often skimmed over as a topic and rarely prioritised.

“I found students had become completely disengaged from the topic,” says Jen. “They’d say things like, ‘All we can do is be vegetarian or not and that’s too extreme; we want something else that’s in the middle’. Again, my study highlighted the importance of understanding your population when designing interventions. In this case, the underlying barriers made it difficult for any education to take hold or even get started.”

Jen is keeping this idea front and centre as she heads back to her desk at MPI for another year. On this year’s to-do list is a continued focus on MPI’s Animal Welfare Act regulatory work and fielding technical queries on issues such as humane slaughter and trapping methods. She’ll also sit on the Greyhound racing industry’s welfare committee as an observer on behalf of the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee.

Right now, as the summer starts to give way to autumn, Jen’s all too aware of the cooling temperatures of Wellington Harbour, where she likes to train and compete. Having recently arrived back in New Zealand from three weeks in the UK (where, yes, she managed a wintery dip in the sea at Brighton), she reckons she’s probably ready to test that superpower again.