Dr. Brenda Coe reviews a career of protecting farm animal welfare


Brenda Coe, Ph.D., has dedicated her life to studying animal behavior and implementing best practices on behalf of cows, chickens, pigs, goats and lambs around the United States and, lately, around the world.

For more than 30 years, she’s been a professor and researcher in Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. That’s how she began working alongside our founder — right at the beginning of Adele Douglass Jolley’s quest to improve the lives of food animals in the global supply chain.

Today, Brenda is still on the front lines of developing and auditing for Certified Humane® Farm Animal Standards on farms and ranches worldwide.

“I love the farmers that I work with,” she said. “I love talking to people who are really proud and excited to show you what their facilities are like and what they’re doing.”

The decades of experience allow her to comfortably claim the title “Senior Auditor.”

“I’ve been doing it for the longest. And I’m senior to all the other auditors,” she said with a laugh.

As a member of our Scientific Committee, she helps Certified Humane® apply the latest research and best practices to its Certified Humane® Farm Animal Standards

“Certified Humane® is a way for the public to see that farmers care,” Brenda said. “It’s a good way to identify farmers who are doing a good job.”

That’s what she loves best: seeing how the farmers and ranchers pour into the animals they care for.

“I love coming to see the improvements they’ve made and just hear their stories: the problems they had and how they fixed them,” Brenda said. “I love the people aspect of what I do just as much as I enjoy being around all the different animals.”

Cows, chickens and… red deer?

Brenda began her career studying cows, and lately she visits a lot of poultry farms on behalf of Certified Humane®.

However, Brenda is one of the few auditors with the scientific background, training and auditing experience in all the species that the Certified Humane® program covers.

Recently, she added another animal to her list of studied species: red deer.

Brenda traveled to New Zealand to study and develop Humane Farm Animal Standards specifically for red deer. There, the red deer have only recently been domesticated. She learned a lot as she toured different red deer facilities.

“It’s very much like elk production here,” Brenda said, explaining that she knows some folks who raise elk near her home in Pennsylvania.

A key tenant of Certified Humane® Farm Animal Standards is that they are tailored to each species. That requires scientific study and understanding the animals.

“We couldn’t just plunk red deer into our beef or dairy or sheep or goat standards,” Brenda explained. “This is a different creature.”

Certified Humane® Farm Animal Standards are designed to create a universal threshold of care while taking into account the unique natural behaviors and instincts of each species.

For example, all Certified Humane® farm animals must have access to nourishing food and fresh water as well as regular care from trained handlers. Usually, that translates into handlers interacting with the animals on a daily basis.

“However, when red deer are calving, you don’t go near them. You just use your binoculars because if you freak the mom out, then she might abandon her baby,” Brenda said. “So yes, you need to check them every day, but you don’t necessarily need to be as hands-on because that would be detrimental to their welfare.”

After learning the intricacies of red deer, Brenda and her colleagues on the Scientific Committee published Humane Farm Animal Standards for the species in April 2020.

Certified Humane® red deer venison is now available to shoppers through First Light Farms’ online General Store and from Open Farm’s online shop for pet food.

A unique educational path

Brenda grew up in California and always had a love for animals. She was the kid who brought home stray pets or baby birds that fell out of their nests.

“Everybody thought that I was going to be a veterinarian,” she said. “I wanted to grow up on a farm.”

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, she decided to major in animal science, which gave her a lot of options. She didn’t want to be a veterinarian. At the time, most women were small animal vets, and she wanted to do something more than fix animals when they got sick or broke a limb.

Brenda wanted to learn how to keep the animals healthy.

During her sophomore year at UC Davis, she decided to find out if she even liked living on a farm. She took a planned educational leave for a quarter and worked at a beef cattle ranch associated with the university.

On the ranch, Brenda had her first experience with animal behavior research. She got hooked, particularly on studying cows.

She attended Purdue University in Indiana next, earning a master’s degree in reproductive physiology and behavior in dairy cows in 1985.

Before day 1

In 1994, she moved to Pennsylvania for a job at Penn State leading an agriculture educational program for elementary and high school students.

Her next project was with Stanley Curtis, Ph.D, a faculty member at Penn State at the time who brought her on staff to create and implement a livestock training program for the state of Pennsylvania.

The goal was to teach Humane Society Police Officers the basics of animal husbandry so they could properly investigate accusations of animal abuse. That project evolved into Brenda’s dissertation for a Ph.D. in agricultural education and instructional design.

One day — Brenda doesn’t remember exactly when — Adele Douglass Jolley visited Penn State’s college of agriculture, on her quest for scientific perspectives on the welfare of animals. Adele was working for the American Humane Association as the director of its Washington D.C. office.

Dr. Curtis introduced Brenda to Adele. The two women got talking and kept in touch. Adele would sometimes call Brenda for her scientific insight.

When Adele organized an animal welfare certification program called Free Farms at American Humane Association, she asked Brenda to join as its director of animal science programs.

Brenda agreed. For three years, she developed training programs for auditors, traveling around the country to promote the new program and recruit the auditors.

When Adele left the American Humane Association to launch an independent nonprofit solely focused on farm animal care standards, Brenda was there to lend her help as an inspector and her insight as a member of the Scientific Committee.

“I’ve been with Certified Humane® since day 1,” she said.

Science and the farms

It took time for the Certified Humane® program to gain the reputation it enjoys today as a global leader in animal welfare auditing services with a food labeling program. Now, more shoppers know how to identify products developed to Certified Humane® Farm Animal Standards by locating the Certified Humane® logo on packages.

In the early years, ranchers and farmers applying for the certification weren’t always sure what to expect when Brenda and her fellow auditors arrived for the first inspection.

“They thought we were an animal rights organization that was coming out to tell them how to do farming,” Brenda said.

It’s different now that the program is more visible. The Certified Humane® logo is more prolific in stores. Farmers, ranchers, and processors understand that the program is a way for them to showcase the animal welfare practices that went into their products.

They understand that the Certified Humane® Farm Animal Standard are rooted in animal science. They know that auditors are scientists or veterinarians with deep knowledge about what they’re advising.

“People now are a lot more welcoming,” Brenda said. “And once they’ve been through an inspection once, they realize the standards are pretty common sense and not unrealistic.”

Brenda travels frequently across the country to do inspections. As Certified Humane® expanded internationally, she began to travel to Canada and then as far as Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s growing exponentially at this point, which is very exciting,” she said.

Though she doesn’t enjoy the travel itself anymore, Brenda still loves the work she does. In between her trips, Brenda lives near the Penn State campus, teaches college courses on the weekends and cares for her horses.

She’s still looking for a farm to claim as her own. And she still believes strongly in the mission of Certified Humane®.

“It’s a way for the consumer to support improved animal welfare by choosing products with the Certified Humane® logo,” she said. “It’s a way to improve animals’ lives.”