From today's Irish Examiner...
Fans of the hit US TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation will be familiar with the work of forensic scientists, the experts who trace bullet trajectories, study blood spray patterns and retrieve the tiny bits of evidence crucial to any investigation of mysterious or unusual deaths and crimes.
But what happens when the victims of such crimes are cats and dogs, rather than men and women? Can forensics be used in the same way to build a case against those who abuse or kill animals? Dr Melinda Merck, director of veterinary forensic sciences for the American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, certainly believes so.
She has spent the past seven years developing the field of veterinary forensics, preserving animal crime scenes and collecting evidence that has helped to nail several perpetrators of violence against animals. Dr Merck was in Ireland last week to speak at an ISPCA conference on animal forensics in UCD, and how some of these techniques might be introduced here in Ireland.
Dr Merck is the first to admit that this is an unusual line of work, so how did she ever get into it in the first place? “I guess it happened gradually as more cruelty laws were passed in the US,” she explains. “The higher burden of proof in aggravated cruelty cases meant there was a greater need for forensics. I’ve always been interested in solving puzzles and mysteries. I think that’s a natural extension of veterinary medicine because we have patients that can’t tell us what’s wrong.
“In 2002, I started working with all those who had something to offer on animal cruelty cases: medical examiners, coroners, entomologists, forensic experts and crime scene investigators. None of these people had the time nor were they trained to process an animal crime scene, so I decided I would study and learn it myself.”
Dr Merck, herself the adoring owner of nine cats and two dogs, has now been working full-time as an animal forensics expert for two years. She says that despite the somewhat eccentric nature of the job, law enforcement officials and criminal prosecutors take her line of work deadly seriously.
“They really just didn’t understand what was involved, but once they became educated we got their full support,” she says. “My aim is to build a case and make it as legally tight as possible. Before, nobody wanted to take these cases to court because they didn’t know how to present them as evidence, and these cases are all evidence-based.
“We have a victim that can’t testify, so the evidence is what provides the voice and tells the story. My focus is helping at the first level of investigation at the crime scene, as well as examining the live or deceased animals, and then presenting, or helping a prosecutor to present that evidence in court.”
Dr Merck says they have been “extremely successful” so far in getting convictions against people who harm animals. The number one problem in the US is neglect cases, but animal forensic teams also prepare evidence against those involved with puppy farming, dog fighting and animal torture.
While animal cruelty cases are important in their own right, they can also serve as indicators of many other forms of violence and ongoing abuse and neglect, including child and spousal abuse. Professor Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and animal behaviourist, was also at the ISPCA conference in Dublin to talk about the links between animal violence and other serious criminal activities.
Having spent over two decades studying why and how people hurt animals, Prof Lockwood began liaising with animal rights activists, social workers and child protection officers to conduct a study comparing ASPCA records of homes that were visited for suspected animal cruelty and child protection reports. He says he wasn’t at all surprised to find a high degree of overlap.
“The problem in the States, and I see the same here in Ireland, is that most agencies that deal with violence are segregated according to the nature of the victim,” Prof Lockwood says. “What we’ve realised is that we’re dealing with the same perpetrators.
“We’re increasingly using the presence of animal abuse and neglect to identify families that are in need of intervention. I always tell child abuse investigators that the first and best question you should ask any kid is: tell me about your pets. It will be there in all likelihood and the children will be aware of it. They understand how the animals are being treated and they want it to stop.
“One of the things we try to stress is finding something to talk about with the children that is non-threatening and which establishes a bond. Everyone likes dogs and cats. Sometimes we might have a therapy animal in the room when talking to the kids, and they will often indirectly reveal details of abuse at home.”
In the course of his study in this area, Prof Lockwood spent time interviewing some of society’s most deranged elements, including rapists, murderers and serial killers, in order to establish links between the various forms of violence against the defenceless.
“Some were more self-aware than others about their own pathways,” he explains. “The serial killer with whom I spoke the longest was named Keith Hunter Jesperson, the so-called ‘Happy Face Killer’. There had been a case where some boys had killed one of their mother’s cats, and it was being treated in the local paper with an attitude of, ‘Oh it was just a cat and boys will be boys’.
“But this guy, who was in prison for three murders, wrote a letter to the editor of that paper saying, ‘You should take this seriously, that’s how I got started’. I was on a plane to the prison the next day and spent two days interviewing him. After that, he wrote his own biography, and he even has his own blog now about animal cruelty. When a guy like that offers some insight into his motivation, then you have to listen.”
Right now, the field of animal forensics looks set to grow and grow. The conference in Dublin was attended by several members of the Gardai as well as social services and the veterinary profession. Meanwhile, courses are now being taught in vet schools in three American universities and a full undergrad and MA course is about to start in the University of Florida.