When Marylin Christian’s beloved cat Cody was found dead under suspicious circumstances two years ago, she vowed to seek justice.
But when Christian suggested that animal control officers collect saliva from a neighbor’s dog, Lucky, to see if it could be genetically linked to hair found in Cody’s mouth and claws, she was met with bewilderment.
“They kind of acted like, ‘Well, you’ve been watching a little too much ‘CSI,”’ Christian recalled with a laugh.
Christian eventually paid $500 for the evidence to be tested at the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of California at Davis, which has the largest database of domesticated-animal DNA in the country.
The result? A one in 67 million chance the hair belonged to any animal other than Lucky.
“Usually, people come to us because it’s a very emotional matter,” said Beth Wictum, acting director of the lab’s forensics division. “They’ve lost a pet, and for many people, pets are a member of the family and they want to get resolution.”
In the time that’s passed since Christian’s loss, more and more law enforcement officials have come to share her interest in applying forensic methods to cases involving animals — whether the animal is a victim, perpetrator or even a witness.
“There’s some real serious cases where animal DNA played a role in helping solve the case,” said Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, a DNA expert who has asked investigators to collect DNA samples from murder suspects’ pets at crime scenes. “I believe that it will be used more and more.”
‘Rapidly growing’ field
Wictum’s lab handles between 150 and 200 cases a year from all over the world. But scientists don’t just deal with pet-on-pet attacks. They process evidence from cases involving animal attacks on humans, human attacks on animals, and even human crimes against each other in which an animal may yield important clues.
In one case, the lab used DNA testing to match dog excrement found on the bottom of a murder suspect’s shoe to excrement found near the crime scene — a piece of evidence that helped secure the man’s conviction.
In another case, a sexual assault victim couldn’t pick her attacker out of a lineup — but she remembered her dog had urinated on the man’s pickup truck. The dog’s DNA matched DNA traces found on the truck’s tire and the suspect pleaded guilty.
ASPCA forensic veterinarian Melinda Merck relies on the same techniques as standard crime scene investigators — ballistics, toxicology, blood spatter analysis — to help solve animal cruelty cases across the country.
“It’s rapidly growing,” she said of her specialty. “There is a tremendous interest from the veterinarians and there’s a tremendous interest from law enforcement.”
Last year, Merck testified in the Atlanta trial of two teenage brothers who tortured a puppy and left it in an oven to die. Merck was able to prove the puppy was alive when it was tortured and reconstructed the animal’s grim final moments for a jury. The brothers were sentenced to a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.
Even forensic entomologists — who use insects such as maggots to help estimate a victim’s time of death — have crossed over into the world of animal-related crimes.
Forensic entomologist Jason Byrd often is called on to help investigators with wildlife crimes and poaching cases. If a bald eagle is shot at a game reserve, Byrd can examine the maggots on the bird’s carcass to help determine its time of death. Investigators then can access the records at the reserve to narrow down who was in the area at the time of the shooting.
“They’re not scared to spend money now to figure out who’s been poaching animals,” Byrd said. “Now they do true investigation techniques — they throw forensic science at the problem.”
Colleges taking note
As the field of animal forensics grows, so does the need for training.
Colleges are just beginning to take note. This year, Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine began offering a forensic veterinary medicine course, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, said professor Janice Sojka. Sojka said she recognized a need for the course after noticing a recent explosion of interest in the field.
“With ’CSI’ and ’Law & Order,’ people kind of know what’s out there and what can be done and then there’s a growing expectation that you’ll do that for your animals,” she said. “It’s become a lot more respected.”
Despite the fact that Christian got DNA results, animal control officers refused to declare Lucky a dangerous dog. Lucky and his owners have since moved away.
And even though her CSI-style pursuit of justice was expensive and frustrating, the stay-at-home mother of two has no regrets.
“I felt like I needed to do it for my family,” she said. “The two-legged and the four-legged.”