Crime scene team exposes animal cruelty

Secrets lie in the bones — and in the tissue and in the shape of the wounds, and the severity and type of injuries.

And these days, when investigators are poring over X-rays, bone fragments, bullet trajectories or other details, it may be to establish whether a crime was committed against an animal.

Forensic crime-scene investigations are no longer limited to human victims. Many of the very same techniques brought to public awareness by the popular CSI television series are being used to make cases against those who have harmed or killed cats, dogs, horses or other animals.

Applying forensic science to animal victims is a specialty still so new that it's fairly rare. But two self-taught experts who make up the recently formed Veterinary Forensics unit of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are writing book and chapter (three how-to tomes so far) and sharing their knowledge almost as quickly as they develop it.

Melinda Merck is a veterinarian who ran an Atlanta-area cat clinic for years before becoming intrigued with forensic science in the '90s. Randall Lockwood has a doctorate in psychology and has developed expertise in cruelty and violence. They travel the country to investigate crimes against animals (including the Michael Vick dogfighting case and a notorious Atlanta puppy-torture case last year).

They're regularly called on to offer expert testimony in court (they're tracking toward 60 this year); and by the end of December, they will have spoken at nearly 100 conventions and conferences to instruct veterinarians and law enforcement officials who might someday find themselves in the midst of a cruelty investigation or court case.

"Animal cases are similar to crimes against young children who can't speak for themselves," says Merck. "You have to use every resource and every investigative tool to attempt to put together the pieces of the puzzle."

Helping 'range of responders'

Although stronger animal cruelty laws and heightened public awareness of animal cruelty have spurred greater interest in punishing offenders, most officials have no experience in putting together a rock-solid animal case.

"We're looking to give assistance and guidance to the whole range of responders to animal cruelty, from the public who report it, to the police who investigate it, to the prosecutors who prosecute it, to the veterinarians who want to be good witnesses, to judges who take this seriously," Lockwood says.

By year's end, the ASPCA will roll out another forensics first: the nation's only animal crime-scene van. The $250,000 forensic mobile unit, equipped with X-ray machines, computers, examination tables, and cameras and video equipment for documenting evidence, will travel, when requested by local officials, to wherever there are multiple cases of abuse or cruelty. Those will most often be dogfighting operations, puppy mills or animal hoarding situations, "cases where there is a lot of evidence," says Lockwood.

Very often, says Merck, she's called to assist in rural areas, or in late-night Drug Enforcement Administration raids, since drug dealing and dogfighting correlate pretty highly. Lighting is terrible, there's no easy way to contain the still-living animals, and preserving evidence is tough. She might be miles from a place where X-rays can be taken or blood samples run, and sometimes animals and investigators are enduring raging heat, bitter cold or pounding rain. The van will help ensure that important evidence is collected, preserved and efficiently processed, she says, and will make it easier to care for the animals.

When Merck's interest in veterinary forensics began budding years ago, she searched for a veterinarian who could mentor new learning. No luck. So she turned to medical examiners and textbooks in human forensics.

She and Lockwood have built knowledge "strongly rooted in science," says Lockwood, by determining "what human literature applies and what doesn't." For example, about 99% of how to interpret animal wounds is the same as on humans, they now know, but the other 1% is vital to understand: "Animals don't bleed and bruise like humans," says Merck.

Lockwood and Merck spend much of their time instructing veterinarians because vets are often the first to discover animal abuse. "Battered pet" is a recognized condition applied to an animal subjected to the same types of brutality leveled against humans in domestic violence situations, Lockwood says.

Thousands of dollars well spent

Every state has different animal cruelty laws, says Lockwood, but in many cases of neglect, hoarding and puppy-mill breeding, first offenders can sometimes avoid jail time on plea agreements that include surrendering the animals. However, he says, jail time is common in cases that involve "torture or wanton cruelty or dogfighting."

It costs the ASPCA several hundred thousand dollars a year to support this initiative, says ASPCA president Ed Sayres, but he believes it's money well spent. "I believe that tackling animal cruelty is the 'next frontier,' as it were, for our field, in terms of new developments." In fact, he has earmarked an additional $100,000 to support new training and materials related solely to the matter of dogfighting.