Animal CSI: Vets learn how to investigate crimes

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When federal investigators working the Michael Vick dogfighting case needed someone to dig up and analyze the remains of eight pit bulls buried on the football star's Virginia property, they summoned Melinda Merck.

The nation's top forensic veterinarian, Merck was one of the few specialists trained in processing crime scenes involving animals. Her job at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals involves helping prosecutors build court cases, and she saw there weren't nearly enough vets and other professionals with those skills.

The 46-year-old Merck is trying to change that, co-founding a first-of-its-kind veterinary forensic science training program at the University of Florida. She and scientists from the university's renowned human forensics lab are sharing their expertise with animal-cruelty investigators, police and veterinarians who come from around the world.

In a nod to the popular TV shows, it's already being called "Animal CSI."

Demand for forensic veterinarians has been growing as many states have toughened their animal cruelty laws. And law enforcement agencies nationwide have increasingly recognized that those who abuse animals are likely to eventually commit crimes against people.

Hands-on seminars teach participants crime-scene processing and the preservation of evidence in cases of animal abuse and neglect such as those involving puppy mills, dogfighting and animal hoarding. Elements include exhuming remains, analyzing hair, fibers and blood splatter, and even how insect life cycles and plant growth can yield clues about an animal's death.

"With animal cruelty, there are usually no witnesses — or reluctant witnesses — and certainly the victims can't testify, even if they're alive," Merck said. "So they're always evidence-based cases."

A partnership between the ASPCA and the university's William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, the program has already trained around 200 people, mostly through two- and three-day sessions. A certification program in the subject for the university students is in the works.

On a warm afternoon deep in a forest near Gainesville, teams of six are sifting through cordoned-off "crimes scenes," seeking evidence of buried animal remains. Each group has a scenario — for instance, one is investigating ritualistic animal sacrifice; others are looking into cases of animals being shot, strangled and stabbed by abusers. The students processed the carefully staged scenes, learning to build a criminal case that will stand up in court.

"We all get abuse or suspected abuse cases," says Cheryl Clark of San Diego, a veterinarian for more than three decades who took meticulous notes as her group unearthed shreds of potential evidence at their site. "At this point in my career, I want to get some more precise knowledge to help other professional veterinarians. I want to help animals on a more global scale, so I think the way to do it is prosecute abusers and try to get laws changed and improved."

Others sweating in the woods included ASPCA field investigators, American Humane Association disaster-response team members and animal docs like Clark. Coincidentally, the session was cut short for one team of ASPCA investigators — they had to pick up and travel to a southern Pennsylvania farm where 925 pigs were found dead from suspected neglect.

The idea for the program began with maggots.

That's the way Merck and Jason Byrd tell it. Byrd is a forensic entomologist, or insect expert, at the university who has traveled the world helping CSI types discern clues from the life cycles of insects found on decomposing bodies.

Merck, then a private veterinarian in Atlanta, sought out Byrd in 2003 to analyze maggots found on some animal remains as she sought to determine a time of death.

Merck eventually joined the ASPCA in Atlanta but continued to turn to Byrd for help. Soon they were organizing workshops for law enforcement at the University of Florida, and the whole thing was galvanized with the first international veterinary forensic sciences conference in May 2008. Merck moved to Gainesville in August 2009 to run the program alongside Byrd, helped so far by more than $300,000 in ASPCA funding.

"She was really the first veterinarian in the country who came to law enforcement and said, 'Teach me what you guys do,'" Byrd said. "And she was the first person to religiously apply what we do at her crime scenes."

Last year, Merck marshaled university-trained forensic teams to 25 different crime scenes and helped break up the largest suspected dogfighting ring in U.S. history. The investigation rescued more than 400 pit bulls from six states and led to 26 arrests.

In the Vick case, Merck was given the grim task of excavating two mass graves containing the remains of eight dogs allegedly killed by the NFL star and his associates on a property in southern Virginia. She was asked to determine exactly how the dogs had died.

Her findings would corroborate what witnesses said about Vick and co-defendants killing underperforming animals by hanging, shooting, drowning and slamming them to the ground. Exhumed bones that showed signs of bites also supported dogfighting charges in the federal indictment.

"What we reconstructed was not consistent with his version of events," Merck says of Vick.

The athlete was convicted in 2007 of conspiracy and running a dogfighting ring and served 18 months in prison and two months of home confinement. The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in August 2009, less than a month after his release and has since made speaking appearances urging people to show kindness toward animals.