My time as an MSc Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law student at the University of Glasgow by Megan Baker

Last September, I began studying an MSc in Animal Welfare, Science, Ethics and Law at the University of Glasgow. The course is split into three semesters: the first focusing on science research skills, the second ethics and law, with the third dedicated to completing the dissertation or “research project”.

Before this I gained my undergraduate degree in law at the University of Birmingham, which is where I became interested in the idea of animal law. During the course of my studies I came to the conclusion that I did not want to become a practising lawyer, and instead decided I wanted to pursue a career in animal welfare, perhaps becoming involved in the actual law and policy-making process. As I learned more about the sector, I became aware that animal welfare is a multidisciplinary subject; with its approach taking in law, science and sociology, The University of Glasgow’s course seemed perfect to equip me with the skills necessary to understand the science to support legal or ethical arguments to become an advocate for animals.

The first semester consisted of two modules, ‘Animal Welfare Science’ and ‘Key Research Skills’. Animal Welfare Science covered general welfare issues in different areas, such as pets, zoos, laboratory animals, wild animals, and so on. We were also encouraged to apply animal welfare in more unconventional contexts – such as the conflict between conservationists and welfarists – and focusing on group welfare rather than individual welfare for wild animals.

The Key Research Skills module focused primarily on using the software ‘R’ for statistical analysis. Having had absolutely no prior experience with coding or statistics, I found this to be quite a challenge; even those with a scientific background seemed to struggle, though, which was reassuring! The class included postgraduate students from other courses within our school (such as the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine), which meant that there were plenty of people to ask when you needed help.

Although this meant that there was a very mixed ability within the class, the course was structured as if everyone was starting afresh with the software for the first time. There was also an online message board where you could post queries which the lecturers would respond to within a reasonable amount of time. This was particularly useful as if you had a problem with your script, the chances were someone else would have the exact same issue! It is also hard to put into words the sheer elation and joy you feel when you are able to run a script with absolutely no errors!

In the second semester, we took the core modules ‘Animal Ethics’ and ‘Legislation and Societal Issues’, as well as having the opportunity to choose four optional modules. I chose two of the animal welfare-specific classes, ‘Biology of Suffering’ and ‘Welfare Assessment’, and two modules offered by other postgraduate degrees within our school, ‘Human Dimensions of Conservation’ and ‘Vertebrate Identification’.

‘Vertebrate Identification’ was the module I enjoyed the most. The assessment took place at SCENE, the University of Glasgow’s research centre located in Loch Lomond. This was something completely different from the rest of my higher education. I was outdoors, in beautiful surroundings, listening to bird calls, setting and looking for small mammal traps, and identifying animals from their scats. I also got to see a red squirrel and pine marten in the wild (that’s two animals crossed off my species bucket list). It really made me consider welfare in a wildlife context, as well as the importance of monitoring in conservation to assess the health of different habitats and ecosystems.

This course was everything that I was looking for. We had several trips across the year, including to the Highland Wildlife Park, a commercial dairy farm, an SSPCA wildlife rescue, and the university animal laboratories and research farm. We also benefited from guest lecturers drawn from different disciplines and organisations, including a wildlife consultant, the Head of Living Collections at the Highland Wildlife Park, an RSPB campaigner, a member of the SSPCA, and A-law trustee and animal law expert Mike Radford. I feel I now have a well-rounded knowledge about the different contexts in which animals are used, and how science can be used to detect and monitor welfare states of individual animals.

I now only have my dissertation left to complete. The majority of students on this course undertake a scientific study, but as a law graduate, I wanted to focus on a project that would be beneficial to animal welfare in a legal and policy context. My course leaders were more than happy to accommodate me and are very keen to publish any projects completed by masters students. I have also been lucky enough to secure a partnership with Scottish-based animal welfare charity OneKind, so hopefully you shall see the executive summary of my work on their website next year!

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