Animal CSI

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals investigates over 5,000animal cruelty cases each year and either issues a summons to or arrests more than 300 people. Such animal cruelty cases can include issues of neglect, abandonment, animal hoarding and, sadly, even bloody sports like dog fighting.

Unfortunately, not all of these cases are solved. This is simply because most of the investigators lack the proper training in animal forensics and toxicology.

A new university forensics program will hopefully change all of that!

The ASPCA has joined forces with The University of Florida at Gainesville to develop courses for students in the fields of animal forensics and toxicology.

The University’s new program will launch in the Spring of 2010, will be the first veterinary forensics science department at any major university in the USA.

Melinda Merck, the Senior Director of Veterinary Forensics for the ASPCA, confided that: “I didn’t think this would ever be possible.”

Ms Merck has so much faith in this new program that she plans on moving from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Gainesville to supervise the program’s launch. She believes that such training will increase the success rates of animal cruelty cases everywhere.

“I’ve spent years trying to network and bring people with their areas of expertise together, to get specialists to help me with cases,” Merck said. “I’ve been having to piecemeal cases for all this time, and now we are going to be able to unify, to bring the forensic community together. When you add forensic science and testing to an animal case, you get a lot stronger cases, you get greater investigations, I should say, and the outcome is better.”

Most animal crime scenes are dealt with just as a human crime scene is dealt with. However, since animal bodies and human bodies actually decompose differently and bleed less, it is very challenging for the investigators to try and identify exactly how and when an animal died, especially so without having the proper education and training.

An associate professor at the University of Florida, Jason Byrd, who is also a forensic entomologist, explained that: “When pathologists get contacted by law enforcement to assist in cruelty cases, they may have tried to assist on their own, but they feel uncomfortable, because they don’t have the formal background and training that is required.”

Even Veterinarians that are sometimes asked to form an opinion on how an animal died based on their remains, often also lack the formal training that is necessary for them to make a complete and accurate assessment, explains Merck.

Ms. Merck goes on to explain further that the crime labs in most States across the USA: “don’t want to do animal sources of testing because they want to keep human and animal tests different, for quality control.”

“We have to go through private specialists, or a private lab or individuals, maybe through a university, in order to get the tests done. It’s very challenging.”

Because of this, some of the animal cruelty cases can be abandoned for what appears to be no apparent reason, says Byrd.

“I realized there was a disconnect in the animal anti-cruelty movement,” Byrd said. “There wasn’t a lack of interest from the vets or the law enforcement – it was quite the opposite. They knew what was needed to successfully follow through on a case, but they didn’t have the tools to do so.”

There has been a lot of support from university students and veterinarians for the new veterinary forensics program at the University of Florida since it announced its new program.

Ms. Merck describes the enthusiasm for the program as: “It kind of had a ripple effect. The excitement is there, and the interest is going to be tremendous. This is the first program, but I doubt it is going to be the last.”

The University’s new program will initially be offered as a 15 credit certification course that will include both undergraduate and postgraduate courses and will ultimately spread out to be an entirely separate veterinary forensic science program, explained Byrd.

Such courses include forensic entomology, remains excavation, blood spatter pattern analysis, bite-mark analysis and animal crime scene processing.

“Within that program, we will have a vet science track, and a pre-professional program on a master’s level. Eventually, we will offer a PhD program in forensic medicine.”

The certificate course will be offered to the University’s students as well as continuing education for veterinarians, law enforcement, animal control officers and other people that are involved in animal cruelty cases.

“The more we can educate, the more investigations will get underway,” Merck said. “Education is key … There really is no limit on where we can take this. This is a groundbreaking, exciting time.”

Photo Credit: exfordy

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