Delving into Forensics

Veterinarians apply knowledge to legal cases, particularly animal abuse
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The police didn’t expect to find a monkey in the barn.

Dr. Ernest Rogers was riding along with a canine police unit when the unit received a call to track a fugitive on foot. The chase led to a barn. The fugitive had disappeared, but the police did find a capuchin monkey with no food or water. A rescue group took in the monkey, and Dr. Rogers would later testify that the animal was improperly housed.

Dr. Ernest Rogers demonstrates recovery of bullet casings at a simulation of a crime scene. Dr. Rogers is the pro bono forensic veterinarian for the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a practitioner in Maplewood, N.J.

Dr. Rogers had been consulting on canine behavior for police in western Virginia while studying at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine for a doctorate in veterinary medical sciences with research work in toxicology and pharmacology. The incident with the monkey was his introduction to the field of veterinary forensics.

Forensics is the application of scientific knowledge to legal matters, especially scientific analysis of evidence. Veterinary forensics has to do particularly with cases of animal cruelty or neglect, and occasionally with offenses that involve animals more peripherally. The animals can be living or dead.

Fast-forward several years in Dr. Rogers’ career to another experience in veterinary forensics. By then, he had joined a practice in New Jersey. One day, while he was working at a shelter, police asked him to recover a bullet from a dog that had been shot in a gang fight and died. The police were trying to connect the shooter to several homicides in the area.

Later, Dr. Rogers happened to encounter the Humane Police of the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He introduced himself, and they eventually asked for his help in a case against a dog trainer accused of abusive methods. He has been consulting with them since 2007, pro bono.

Dr. Rogers is among a number of veterinarians who have come to the field of veterinary forensics through a roundabout route. As recognition of the field grows, however, more veterinarians are seeking out relevant training.

Studies have found that most practicing veterinarians will see a case of animal abuse at some time during their career. Learning a little about veterinary forensics can be helpful in responding to these cases, according to experts in the field.

On behalf of the victim

Among the most recognizable names in veterinary forensics is Dr. Melinda Merck.

In the 1990s, when she was a small animal practitioner in Atlanta, Dr. Merck routinely reported to law enforcement about cases of animal abuse that she saw in practice or in her work with shelters. Reporting animal abuse was unusual for the local veterinary community at the time, she said.

Dr. Melinda Merck participates in a course at North Carolina State University on the investigation of crime scenes involving human deaths. Dr. Merck speaks and writes extensively about veterinary forensics and recently started Veterinary Forensics Consulting. (Courtesy of Dr. Melinda Merck​)

In 2000, a Georgia law made animal cruelty a felony. Dr. Merck joined the efforts of Georgia Legal Professionals for Animals to educate police, prosecutors, and veterinarians about the law.

She also decided to learn more about how to handle evidence in cases of animal cruelty, but soon discovered that almost no information was available. So she began observing medical examiners and immersed herself in the emerging field of veterinary forensics.

Dr. Merck went on to speak extensively and write two books on veterinary forensics. She joined the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as a forensics expert before starting Veterinary Forensics Consulting recently.

“I wrote the first book because I realized that veterinarians aren’t going to do anything that they don’t have a reference for,” Dr. Merck said. “They needed a book they could pull off the shelf when they got a case, because it scares them. It’s very frightening to consider doing something we don’t understand.”

In recent years, Dr. Merck said, veterinarians have been showing a genuine interest in learning about veterinary forensics. She said no one is better than a veterinarian at understanding animal evidence, but forensics also entails collecting evidence that is valuable and admissible in court and maintaining a chain of custody for the evidence to prevent tampering.

Dr. Merck’s second book on veterinary forensics, coming out this fall, is twice the length of the first. “Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigation” covers subjects such as crime scene investigation, animal examination, and report writing. She hopes it will provide more of a foundation for answering the questions that arise in investigations of animal cruelty, such as questions concerning postmortem changes in tissues.

As a consultant, Dr. Merck has been working on a variety of cases. In a noteworthy example, she traveled to British Columbia last year to perform necropsies on the remains of dozens of sled dogs from a mass grave. The provincial government has charged a tour operator with killing the dogs via inhumane methods in early 2010 after a downturn in business following the Olympics in Vancouver.

“You cannot be invested in the outcome, because the outcome is affected by more than the veterinarian’s work,” Dr. Merck noted, adding, “To do nothing is unacceptable. I have to act and do something on behalf of the victim.”

Everyone likes to try to put the story together. Whenever you are presented with a sick animal in practice, there is always a story behind it, and you’re trying to put everything together.

Dr. Sharon Gwaltney-Brant, immediate past president, International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association

The appeal of puzzles

Dr. Sharon Gwaltney-Brant, immediate past president of the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association, came to veterinary forensics while working as a toxicologist for the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in Illinois.

The ASPCA called on Dr. Gwaltney-Brant, who had completed a pathology residency, to assist with identification of drugs and interpretation of lesions in animals recovered during raids on cockfighting and dogfighting rings. She also did other forensics work while with the ASPCA.

Dr. Gwaltney-Brant currently is an independent consultant on toxicology and veterinary forensics. One of her recent cases involved a puppy that survived alcohol poisoning by a man. Dr. Gwaltney-Brant advised the man’s defense team that the alcohol concentration in a blood sample from the puppy indicated that the animal had been exposed to a potentially lethal amount of alcohol. The defendant pleaded guilty.

The appeal of veterinary forensics is the appeal of figuring out a puzzle, Dr. Gwaltney-Brant said.

“Everyone likes to try to put the story together,” she said. “Whenever you are presented with a sick animal in practice, there is always a story behind it, and you’re trying to put everything together.”

Forensics is a hot topic now because of the popularity of television shows on the subject, but Dr. Gwaltney-Brant said other developments are also contributing to the growth in veterinary forensics. Laws on animal cruelty have become tough enough for prosecutors to be able to pursue serious criminal penalties. The legal community also has taken note of the link between animal cruelty and violence against humans.

Attendees of a 2008 conference on veterinary forensics at the University of Florida formed the IVFSA as an association for veterinarians and other professionals who work on legal cases involving animals. The IVFSA has since held an annual conference at the University of Florida, with plans to move around the country in the future.

The recent addition of veterinary forensics to the armamentarium of practitioners working in animal welfare offers additional opportunities for the prevention of animal maltreatment.

“Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse and Neglect” from the American Humane Association and the AVMA

Forensics in the armamentarium

More states than before are requiring veterinarians to report animal abuse, with many states providing immunity from liability. “The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities, whether or not reporting is mandated by law,” according to the AVMA policy “Animal Abuse and Animal Neglect.”

The AVMA provides information about state reporting requirements here. The same site links to the document “Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse and Neglect” from the American Humane Association and the AVMA.

“The recent addition of veterinary forensics to the armamentarium of practitioners working in animal welfare offers additional opportunities for the prevention of animal maltreatment,” according to the document.

Dr. Gwaltney-Brant said practitioners should take a few basic steps to respond to cases of animal abuse.

“The very first thing they need to do is they need to know what their laws are, she said. “The second thing is, as soon as cruelty is suspected, report it to your local law enforcement or animal control.”

She recommended labeling samples well and storing them in a secure area until they can be turned over to authorities.

Veterinarians who want to learn more about veterinary forensics can turn to an expanding array of books, conference sessions, and online courses. Dr. Merck said some communities have begun to hold interdisciplinary training on veterinary forensics for local veterinarians, legal professionals, and shelter representatives.

For veterinarians who want to delve further into forensics, Dr. Merck suggested contacting the local medical examiner or other legal professionals to offer assistance.

Presenting the evidence

Dr. Rogers has consulted with the NJSPCA in the prosecution of 40 to 45 cases of animal cruelty. He has been an expert witness for the defense in cases outside New Jersey through his consulting company, Animal Forensic Investigations LLC. He continues to practice full time at The Maplewood Animal Hospital LLC.

In his consulting for the NJSPCA, Dr. Rogers is providing input on a high-profile case of a pit bull–type dog that survived after being found emaciated in a trash chute. A woman is facing charges in the case.

Another pending case involved a cat that was apparently lured into a garage and shot dead. Dr. Rogers confirmed the cause of death and retrieved multiple projectiles.

Dr. Rogers believes that veterinarians have all the tools for the scientific side of forensics.

“It’s all how you present the evidence. We are scientists; we were educated to be scientists,” Dr. Rogers said. “We just have to know how to take that education and look at the evidence and present it in a way that our colleagues who are lawyers and judges will accept it.”