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Animal CSI? University to teach vet forensics

/ Source: The Associated Press

Only a few investigators in the country are trained to adequately investigate and prepare cases for prosecution of the horrendous crimes against animals that can leave dogs, roosters and other animals maimed and tortured.

The University of Florida and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have teamed up to tackle the shortage by training crime scene investigators to help prosecute those responsible for crimes against animals. The program, which begins in spring 2010, may be the country's first veterinary forensic sciences program at a major university, according to the organizations.

Crimes against animals are typically investigated in the same way as those involving human victims. A dog mauled in brutal fights or a rooster that battled to the death can provide evidence from wounds and marks on their bodies and bones.

"These crimes are evidence-based. We have a victim who cannot testify, so I have to be their voice," said Melinda Merck, senior director of veterinary forensics for the ASPCA, who has investigated high-profile cases such as the dogfighting prosecution of former National Football League quarterback Michael Vick.

She is moving from Atlanta to Gainesville to teach classes and investigate animal abuse in the new program. She is bringing the ASPCA's Animal Crime Scene Investigation Unit, which contains forensic equipment and a surgical suite to care for injured animals.

The program will offer undergraduate and postgraduate courses and continuing education for veterinarians, law enforcement, animal control officers and others involved in the investigation and prosecution of crimes against animals.

"Our biggest mandate is to educate others," she said. "Veterinary students are craving this information and it will effect change."

Possible courses will include forensic entomology — the study of insects in decaying bodies — remains excavation, blood spatter pattern analysis, bite-mark analysis and animal crime scene processing. The training will be done in classroom settings, online and through workshops so students can learn the nuances of animal investigation.

For example, blood spatter evidence is different from human evidence.

"Animals bleed differently than humans, usually much less, and the animal's behavior certainly impacts how the blood stain patterns are analyzed," Merck said.

Jason H. Byrd, another professor and forensic entomologist, said the new center will help meet a need in training animal cruelty investigators.

"The whole idea is to put these little pieces of the puzzle together to paint an overall picture for the judge and jury. Not one thing is the linchpin that gets the case — like you see on TV — but the overwhelming amount of evidence that can be built up and in most cases, end up with a confession," Byrd said.

The collaboration between the university and the ASPCA started a year ago, when the two institutions organized a conference on using forensic science to investigate animal cruelty. Only a few dozen people were expected to attend, but 200 people from across the U.S. and nine other countries showed up. They are now working to form the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association.

"This is a newly emerging field," said forensic toxicologist Bruce Goldberger, director of the university's William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine. "We are translating our knowledge of forensic science to a new field devoted to solving crimes against animals."

Each year, the ASPCA investigates more than 5,000 cruelty cases and arrests or issues summonses to more than 300 people. The cases include simple neglect, abandonment, animal hoarding and blood sports such as dogfighting.

Vick's case is a good example. He is serving a 23-month prison sentence for bankrolling a dogfighting ring.

In his federal case, Vick admitted helping kill six to eight pit bulls that did not perform well in test fights, including by electrocution, drowning and hanging.

Merck was able to analyze bones from mass graves and find evidence of dogs fighting and being hanged and thrown to the ground.