Student - October 8, 2009

Horsey girl turns manager

The biggest course in the whole of Wageningen UR is Animal management in Leeuwarden. Every year this course turns out between 100 and 150 qualified animal managers. What is the course worth? Recent graduates give their views.

Marlou Heeren on her own farm
Ever since it started in 1992, the Animal management course at Van Hall Larenstein in Leeuwarden has been dogged by prejudice. A course about non-productive animals was seen as a soft and trendy option with a broad pick&mix range of modules. An ideal course for girls with vague ambitions to change the world, starting with the world of their pets.
 Yet the course is enormously popular. This year VHL has to pull out all the stops in order to cater properly for the 220 first year students. There is an element of trendiness in Animal Management - this is drily admitted in a VHL self-evaluation report that came out just before the summer. But, although 25 to 30 percent of the students drop out in the first year, those who stay are highly motivated by their passion for animals.
Job prospects
Animal Management likes to profile itself as a broad course. From a publicity point of view this is not a bad strategy, and a well-considered choice for a course aiming to prepare students for all aspects of this work field. Research among the alumni of 2003 to 2006 has shown that the course delivers managers who find work both within and beyond their own professional field. Over twenty percent have a steady job, most of the rest went on to further studies or a combination of work and studies, and only five percent are unemployed. The course turns out generalists who can work anywhere, but individual alumni also say they lacked certain kinds of knowledge, which they had to pick up outside or after the course.
Cat food
If Jantien Rinkel had to choose all over again, she probably wouldn't go for Animal Management, but for a course on food technology. Jantien is now working for Purina Petcare, a Nestlé subsidiary, coordinating the introduction of new, improved ingredients into dog and cat food. 'I'm the link between the raw materials suppliers, the purchaser, the research department and the production line.'
It was a wish to put ideals into practice rather than scientific curiosity that led Jantien to do an internship at Purina's quality department in Ijmuiden. 'I wanted to contribute to animal welfare, and improving their feeds is a concrete way to do this. That was how I saw it.' She became so engrossed in the research that she ended up being invited to finish her assignment with the European research & development team in France. 'Those internships were crucial: they opened up a whole new world for me.' Jantien decided to take extra courses on business economics and food technology on top of her major in Companion animal management, before joining the staff of Purina. She now works as European Raw Material Manager in Italy.
Looking back, Jantien says, 'The breadth of Animal management provided too little structure for me, and the idealistic emphasis gets in the way of an understanding of professional practice.' At the same time, Jantien realized that her original motives - a love of animals and a wish to do something for their welfare - got here where she is now.
Unlike, Jantien, Joris Verbruggen is full of praise for the broad curriculum of Animal management, and doesn't mind the fact that the course is diverse at the expense of depth. 'The course is the start of a network. You have enough expertise to be able to talk with experts from fields such as zoology and behavioural science, and those contacts put you on track to develop further.' Through the course teachers, Joris got access to conferences and internet discussion groups which gave him in-depth knowledge and valuable contacts, such as the AAP foundation, which provides temporary shelter for neglected primates and exotic small mammals. Because of his active role in forums about animal care, the AAP approached him about the job of placement coordinator. Now Joris travels around Europa to streamline a growing chain of international receptions centres along the lines of those in the Netherlands.
'Pferdewissenschaft'
With the help of bursaries, Animal management manages to attract about thirty German students a year, thus filling a gap in German higher education between animal care courses and veterinary studies. Moreover, veterinary faculties in Germany are highly selective and have strict quotas; so some of those who don't get in make a virtue of necessity and opt for the vocational management course in the Netherlands. Other German students are attracted by the relative freedom the course offers to put together your own programme of studies and internships. A crash course in Dutch helps them leap the language barrier.
   Lena Büker chose Equine management. She has known since she was a child that she wanted to work with horses, but preferably at a distance, since she is allergic to them. Animal management was right up her street, and she now works as marketing and communications manager for the German umbrella organization for equestrian associations. Lena says she got the job partly thanks to a successful orientation visit to her current employer by 75 VHL students. 'The horse world here is very positive about the practical courses in the Netherlands. And in order to fill that gap in Germany, a BSc in Equine studies is going to be launched soon.'
Lena has no regrets about having done the course in Leeuwarden: it was varied, and had a firm foundation, although the management side could have had a bit more depth to it, she thinks. 'I don't know enough about online marketing, for example. No attention was paid to that.'
Born of necessity
This year Animal management is launching a new major in Animals in health care, catering for the trend towards using animals for therapeutic purposes in the health care sector. Marlou Heeren graces the cover of the publicity brochure. Marlou has been running her own care farm in Friesland for one and a half years, having rounded off her course on Companion animal management by drawing up a complete business plan.
'Actually my business was born of necessity. In my first year at VHL I met Eelco. Because of the unexpected death of his father, he had to drop his studies and take over the dairy farm.  Then I thought about what sort of role I wanted on the farm, and I came up with the idea of health care.'
Marlou provides day care for elderly clients, including a farmer with dementia, an autistic fifty something with a speech impediment, and a 35-year-old with ADHD. Providing such a mixed group with structure and the therapeutic benefits of contact with animals only works if you do it on a small scale, Marlou had concluded before she had completed her studies. That's the only way to do justice to both the people and the animals. And that's her message as she tours the lecture circuit in the health sector to promote her business. Her approach is catching on, all the places at her care farm are taken and she is now on the board of Friesian care farms. 'I am now throwing myself into all sorts of courses to learn more about the human side of it.' / Wim Bras

Background: the Animal Management course at VHL
The idea of a course on non-productive animals was thought up by VHL teacher Marnix Rietberg, who saw the growing demand for professionalization in the domestic pet sector in the areas of care, management and regulation. Some cross-pollination between Environmental science and Agriculture courses at the former Van Hall Institute led in 1992 to the new Animal management course. All the students follow a broad foundation course which includes an orientational internship in the first year. This foundation course ends with an internship in which students explore one of six majors: Wildlife management, Policy and communication, Animal companion management, Laboratory animal management, Equine management, and the latest major, Animals in health care. The third year is devoted to going into the major in more depth. And the course finishes with the six-month 'Major internship' and a research project as a graduation assignment. www.dierenwelzijnsweb.nl

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