Forensic Files: Veterinary industry meets to promote animal welfare

In the first meeting of its kind, the Veterinary Forensics Symposium was held April 9-11, 2008 in Orlando, FL.

The symposium was organized to develop steps to prevent animal cruelty by featuring experts in veterinary forensics. Featured speakers conducted seminars that aimed to “bring together areas of forensics that have previously been applied only to crimes against humans.”

Organizers of the event called the symposium a breakthrough in medical education, as well as forensic training that will help veterinarians and their staff members identify and process animal cruelty cases.

“Veterinarians are, in many cases, the first responding [to these cases]. Without their diligent work, much of the needed physical evidence would go undocumented,” said Jason Byrd, PhD and Board Certified Forensic Entomologist and Educational Program Director with the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida. “[Veterinarians] serve a crucial role, and we can not expect them to fill that role unless they have the proper knowledge and tools to complete the task.”

The event showcased the ASPCA’s mobile Animal CSI unit, while focusing on educational meetings which included seminars on veterinary forensic pathology, toxicology related to the intentional poisoning of animals and case management, to name a few.

Melinda D. Merck, DVM, has been at the forefront of animal cruelty research and prevention throughout her career. Since opening her practice, she has assisted local animal control officers with cruelty and abandonment cases. As the ASPCA’s senior director of Veterinary Forensics, she felt that it was paramount to collaborate with professionals industry-wide, in an attempt to shed light on an issue that has steadily gained notoriety since abuse cases such as the Michael Vick dog fighting trial.

“The goal of the symposium was to provide the veterinary and animal investigation community the basics of several areas of forensic science, including unique findings related to animals, and how they can apply that to animal abuse cases,” Merck said. “It was also to provide a forum for others to interact, share ideas and form relationships to further advance the field of veterinary forensics.”

To that end, Merck, Byrd and their colleagues understand that as more of these abuse cases come to light, those in veterinary medicine will be looked to for the edification of the public at large. Moreover, as legal issues arise, veterinarians may be called upon more often by courts at the local level.

“We will see higher charges for cruelty because of the quality of evidence.  It can only enhance the investigations and prosecution of animal abuse,” said Merck.

Byrd concurs with the belief that for abuse cases to be handled properly, evidence of mistreatment is critical, and one of the top reasons why he and Merck wanted to expand the knowledge base and confidence of their fellow practitioners. 

“For me, it is the increased expectation of evidence by everyone involved in the judicial process,” Byrd said. “Law enforcement expects more physical evidence to be collected, attorneys want to have more evidence to empower the case and juries expect to see physical evidence an analytical testing of the evidence to be presented in court.

“Hopefully, it will enhance the investigators ability to recognize, collect and present physical evidence. More importantly, it will provide for the expectation by jurors to be presented with some type of physical evidence tied to analytical techniques that can bring science into the courtroom.”

The seed of the symposium idea took shape over a number of years after Byrd received a phone call from a veterinarian looking for his assistance with a difficult case.

“My cell phone rang. I answered and was greeted by a veterinarian who was working a case of animal cruelty…As the vet described the case, I realized that the desire to gather physical evidence in this case was for no other reason than to play a final role of assistance for the deceased animal—who, of course, could not speak for itself,” Byrd remembered. ”I realized that if something similar had happened to one of my pets, I would want anything that could possibly be done to assist in bringing those responsible to justice.”

Byrd would cross paths a few times with this fellow veterinarian—known as “the cat lady” due to her founding of the Cat Clinic of Roswell in Roswell, Georgia—before working in earnest with her.

The “cat lady” was none other than Dr. Merck. She then enrolled in a workshop taught by Byrd, and the seed of an idea began to take shape.

“The symposium idea started when I was taking a forensics workshop on outside death scene investigations where [Dr. Byrd] was teaching,” Merck recalled. “I had worked with him since my first cruelty case involving entomological evidence and I told him that they needed to consider offering similar courses for the veterinary and cruelty investigation community. Two weeks later he contacted me and said they wanted to put on a conference.”

According to Merck, the symposium hit home with attendees, who were eager to take what they learned in Orlando home with them.

“The reaction has been extremely positive, with comments that this was the best conference they had ever attended and the desire for more training,” said Merck. I have received one email where one veterinarian went home and the following day had a cruelty case and was able to apply what she had learned to that case. When you have 95% of the attendees in their seats at 8 a.m. and they are still there at 5 p.m., you know you were successful.”

Byrd wants to see the symposium as a first great step in continuing forensics education.

“This was just the start of many workshops, Byrd said.” The main goal of the initial conference was to present to veterinarians some of the techniques available in mainstream forensic science that can be directly applied to animal casework…to provide a conduit of information so that we could hear directly from those involved in animal cruelty cases. 

“Now that we know what areas of specialized forensic training they seek, we intend to offer several forensic science short courses to provide them with the skills they need to assist and function professionally in cases of animal cruelty.”

The driving force for both Byrd and Merck continues to be the task of fighting cruelty for those who cannot speak for themselves. Byrd describes it as, “the desire to educate others about my particular specialty so that they can apply it to active cases, and hopefully, prosecute cases of animal cruelty at a level that is equal to the crime committed.”

Merck is equally optimistic about the mission:

“When I teach,  I have the opportunity to create a ripple, and when one of those attendees goes out and applies their new knowledge successfully to a case, then they become the voice for their victim.”

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