ASPCA, University of Florida partner on forensics

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Simulation of an investigation of a hoarding case
A recent conference on animal hoarding featured a hands-on simulation of an investigation of a hoarding case. Here, participants place markers to indicate which pieces of evidence to collect for further examination. The Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hosted the conference in March at the university. (Photos courtesy of the University of Florida)

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the University of Florida veterinary and medical colleges have partnered for the past several years on efforts to advance the field of veterinary forensics.

The ASPCA forensic sciences team and forensics experts from the University of Florida have been assisting with investigations of large-scale cruelty cases involving puppy mills, animal fighting, and animal hoarding. The ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program at the University of Florida began offering a graduate certificate this year for veterinarians and other professionals to learn how to investigate cruelty cases.

Randall Lockwood, PhD, ASPCA senior vice president for forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects, said his organization built on its experience with rescuing animals during disasters to gear up its response to large-scale cruelty cases. The forensic sciences team collects evidence in these cases.

“If you find an animal in a cage filled with feces in poor health condition, obviously from a rescue standpoint, your first impulse is to get that animal out of that horrible situation and into care,“ Dr. Lockwood said. “But what we have to do is first document the situation in which we find the animal.”

A conference participant documents the condition of a dead animal in the mock hoarding case. Conference organizers planted evidence on donated bodies for the exercise.

The forensics team documents the condition of the animals, including health problems, and other evidence from the premises. For dogfighting cases, the evidence might include injuries to the dogs as well as medical supplies on the premises. In each case, the team keeps a photographic log and maintains a chain of custody for the evidence.

Dr. Lockwood said veterinarians in private practice who want to explore forensics do not require an influx of new learning, just a new mindset. What makes an examination or necropsy into a forensic procedure is careful documentation as well as mindfulness of potential challenges from the defense during testimony, he said.

“I think most veterinarians still find courtroom testimony unpleasant, but fortunately, I work with quite a few who actually enjoy the process,” Dr. Lockwood said. “If you know what you’re doing and you’re comfortable with what you’re doing and you know the end result might be securing justice for an animal that may have suffered or died, that can be very rewarding.”

Practitioners have been flocking to conferences and courses on veterinary forensics at the University of Florida.

Among recent offerings at the university, the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program there and the ASPCA hosted a conference in March on animal hoarding. The conference featured a hands-on simulation of a hoarding case investigation.

Starting during the spring semester, the university began to offer an online graduate certificate program in veterinary forensics. Plans are under way to create a full master’s degree in veterinary medical sciences with a concentration in veterinary forensic sciences, said Jason H. Byrd, PhD, a forensic entomologist who is associate director of the University of Florida Maples Center for Forensic Medicine.

“There has been no place for these people who do this to try to get some sort of formalized education in it,” Dr. Byrd said. “There’s no standard protocol, so they try to do what they can do on their own.”

The certificate program’s courses cover the connection between animal cruelty and violence against humans, processing of animal crime scenes, scientific and legal principles of forensic evidence, veterinary forensic pathology, and forensic entomology.

Dr. Byrd’s casework in forensic entomology has focused on estimating time of death for humans, but he is receiving more requests to do the same for animals. He and other forensic scientists at the University of Florida who consult with the ASPCA hadn’t anticipated the scale of the crime scenes for large-scale cruelty cases, however. A large-scale human homicide case might involve half a dozen victims, but a large-scale cruelty case might involve hundreds of animals.

Dr. Byrd believes veterinarians should become a part of the forensic science community. Veterinarians can attend general forensics conferences and can train at local medical examiners’ or coroners’ offices, he said.

“It is important to have veterinarians integrated into mainstream forensic sciences much more than they are,” Dr. Byrd said. “Think of it less as human forensics or animal forensics, and think of it more as just the application of science to legal cases.”

The 2012 AVMA Annual Convention will feature sessions on animal abuse and veterinary forensics Aug. 4 within the Animal Welfare subsection of the Public and Corporate Practice Section. Details are at

The AVMA website provides resources here to help veterinarians respond to cases of animal abuse.