Friday, December 24, 2010
by Andrea Campbell
I am one of those people who cannot watch animal cruelty television shows. If I think Animal Planet TV might be covering something on that order, I have to move on. It’s a good thing, though, that others can stomach the work. Melinda Merck is one of the founders of the first veterinary forensic science program in the United States. It takes place at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Merck is one of the few top veterinarian specialists who was trained in processing crime scenes involving animals. You might remember her if you followed the Michael Vick case, because Melinda Merck was the person federal investigators called in to work the Vick dog fighting compound, where the remains of eight pit bulls were buried on the football star’s property.
Many states today need the services of this type of investigator due to a good thing—the toughening of animal-cruelty laws. We’ve talked enough about behavioral profiling to know that it is not a stretch to understand that people who kill and torture animals are often a stone’s throw away from potentially harming people or committing other serious crimes, so the demand for animal investigators is growing.
Crime scene processing and preserving evidence of abuse and neglect is also needed for puppy mill operations, animal hording, dog fighting, ritualistic animal sacrifice and other abuse pursuits. The skill sets are basically the same in terms of forensic evidentiary collection at human crime scenes: analyzing hair, fibers, blood splatter and instances of insect activity and plant growth, which are clues used to work the cases.
Merck said, “With animal cruelty, there are usually no witnesses—or reluctant witnesses—and certainly the victims can’t testify, even if they’re alive. So they’re always evidence-based cases.”
About 200 people have already been trained in this specialty due to a collaborative effort between the ASPCA and the University’s William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine. A certification program is ongoing and classes are running now regularly.
But, the process has evolved over time. Previously, Merck was a private vet in Atlanta who wanted to analyze some maggots found on animals to determine a time of death. She contacted Jason Byrd, a forensic entomologist who has traveled the world at the summons of other crime scene investigators, because she needed help interpreting the life cycles of insects—one of the telling clues on decomposing bodies. Merck then joined the ASPCA in Atlanta and continued to turn to Byrd for his expertise. Soon they organized workshops at the University of Florida, and it was helped along by the first international veterinary forensic science conferences in May of 2008. The ASPCA also funded the program to the tune of $300,000. Merck moved to Gainesville in August 2009 to jump into the new studies with both feet.
Last year, Merck brought together university trained science teams to work 25 different crime scenes for a reality-based crime. The investigation was essential in helping to dismantle the largest suspected dog-fighting ring in United States history. Some 400-plus pit bulls were rescued from six states and the whole endeavor led to 26 arrests.
According to an interview Merck gave to Mitch Stacy with The Associated Press, some of the evidence found from excavating two mass graves in the Michael Vick case indicated that the killing of those animals on site was by hanging, shooting, drowning or slamming their bodies to the ground, in addition to the bites they had suffered, which were inflicted by the dog fighting. “’What we reconstructed was not consistent with his version of events," Merck says of Vick. Vick was convicted of conspiracy and running a dog fighting ring in 2007 and served 18 months in prison.
Cheryl Clark of San Diego was a veterinarian for more than 30 years and took the course in Florida. Her group study unearthed potential evidence as they were assigned a typical crime scene scenario. One group might investigate animals being shot, while another group might stumble onto animal’s stabbings—all part of the training process. Clark admits that all vets see suspected abuse cases, but she claims her goal was to get more precise knowledge in order help other vets and increase widespread appeal for the discipline. Clark said, “I want to help animals on a more global scale, so I think the way to do it is to prosecute abusers and try to get laws changed and improved.”
We heartily agree.
For additional information visit ASPCA Announces Groundbreaking Research Study Underscoring Importance of Animal Cruelty Law Enforcement
Dr. Merck is the author of Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations (Blackwell Publishing, 2007). She is also the co-author of the book entitled Veterinary Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty: A Guide for Veterinarians and Law Enforcement (Humane Press).
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