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Veterinary Forensics: A Crucial Tool in Fighting Animal Cruelty

The depths of human cruelty know no bounds. As veterinarians, we see nearly the worst that humanity has to offer in terms of care for animals. While it's not an everyday occurrence (thankfully), there are always cases where criminal behavior is brought to light, whether it's physical abuse, misuse of animals, illegal activity, or worse.

Forensic science is used heavily in the detection, analysis, and deterrence of crime in humans. The same can be said of veterinary crimes. Veterinary forensics is an important field for the evaluation, detection, analysis, and prevention of crimes against animals.

Veterinary forensics is a potentially intensive process, but it can also involve nothing more than your standard everyday testing. As a vet, it's important to know your role in forensics, what your limitations should be, and how to participate in a more active role if that's what you want to do.

For obvious reasons, consider this post to have a trigger warning for animal cruelty discussions, including various forms of abuse.

How Veterinary Forensics Works

Most cases where veterinary forensics is called for start with the police. It may be a report of abused or murdered animals, a report of suspicious behavior, or a human crime where animals may be involved. For example, domestic abuse often involves animal cruelty on the side, as animals try to intervene or defend, or simply as an outlet for anger.

Police are generally equipped for human forensics but rarely have their own veterinary forensics experts on staff. Instead, they call in a veterinary forensics team.

The first step taken by a veterinary forensics team is to analyze the situation based on the information they have. This can involve anything from categorizing the type of case to determining how many members of an animal control team will need to be present, what kinds of tools and items will be necessary, and assessing potential dangers. Questions might include:

  • Do we need carriers to extract animals? If so, how many?

  • Will those animals be potentially dangerous?

  • Are there likely to be health hazards involved?

  • Will samples need to be taken at the site?

Once this assessment is complete, the forensics team can gather the necessary materials and supplies and head to the scene.

Next is documentation. Before any animal is touched or any cleaning is done – before anything else happens at all – documentarians explore the site. Photos and video records, as well as written records of what is observed, are all documented in a case file for future reference. Sometimes, these details don't end up mattering; other times, crucial details from this documentation are necessary for court proceedings, as evidence, or more.

There's one exception to this, which is when immediate action must be taken for the safety of humans or animals. If an item is in danger of contamination or damage, or if animals are in need of critical care, these are handled ASAP while being documented. After all, an animal in need is a priority over the scene.

Documentation of a scene generally takes four forms and may involve as many as four or more people working on it. Notes are written records of what is observed. Photos and videos are taken to document evidence and situations. Finally, sketches can show special relationships and representational depictions of a scene without graphic detail and for future reference in instances where the photos and videos alone can't show the scale appropriately.

Obviously, there's more to this than just walking through an animal crime scene with a camera phone taking pictures. Forensic photography and videography are specific skills and generally require training to do properly.

After this documentation process, a thorough search is conducted. This search investigates the entire crime scene and seeks out potential evidence that may have not been obvious, been concealed, or otherwise may need attention and investigation. This, too, is documented.

The next process is evidence collection. Samples and specimens are taken, cataloged, and filed. Trace evidence like shed fur, blood samples, suspicious stains, and other small samples are taken and documented for later analysis. Larger evidence, ranging from animal corpses to bones to tools or weapons, can also be filed away appropriately. This process is very similar to how human forensics analyzes and documents a crime scene.

While some analysis can be done on the scene, most will be done in a laboratory later. Often, samples are sent to labs such as the ASPCA animal forensics lab in Gainesville, Florida, which handles a wide range of animal cruelty cases from all across the country. Here, a thorough investigation is performed, including necropsies, bone analysis, fingerprint analysis and documentation, blood and other fluid sample tests, DNA analysis, and more.

Everything found in this analysis is documented in a written report and with photographs and test results, and all of this is added to a case report. Finally, all of this information is returned to the police, who can then use it to proceed with their own investigations or the prosecution of a criminal.

One reality of this process is that it's certainly not glamorous. It involves a lot of tedious documentation, paperwork, and careful attention to detail. Not everyone is suited to this kind of work, and that's okay. It's best to go to whatever career path is best suited to your proclivities and talents, not to force yourself into a career you dislike and burn yourself out.

Your Role as a Veterinarian

Unfortunately, unless you're specifically pursuing veterinary forensics as a career, most of what we've just described above is outside of your purview. You aren't going to be investigating a crime scene; you're going to be in your practice treating an animal extracted from an abusive situation.

Or, more commonly, you may be the one calling in the report. It's an all-too-common occurrence to treat an animal and see signs that make you suspicious of animal cruelty or neglect. Whether it's suspicions of dogfighting, injuries more indicative of abuse than accident, or signs of neglect, identifying and handling these situations can be an important – and hopefully relatively rare – part of your veterinary practice.

There are four key questions to keep in mind as a veterinary practitioner encountering such a situation.

  • What is maltreatment, and how do I identify it?

  • What if the person did not mean any harm?

  • Do I have to know absolutely that maltreatment has occurred?

  • How do I report it?

These four questions, from the American Veterinary Medical Association's book on the subject, are key to properly handling a suspected situation in your practice. While we're going over some of the key points here, if you're interested in the full text, the 39-page eBook is available free at the link above. We highly encourage reading it.

Many of the most common situations you are likely to encounter are the results of neglect or neglectful abuse, such as poor conditions for the animals, refusing treatment for conditions, lack of grooming, or something like a hoarding situation. That said, less frequent but still possible situations include inflicted abuse, animal fighting, and even sexual abuse.

To answer one of the most important questions above, we'll quote the AMVA book directly:

"Remember: You do not need to know definitively that cruelty or neglect has occurred or continues to occur to make a report of your suspicions. A veterinarian should evaluate clinical conditions with an open mind that presenting signs may be due to natural, accidental, or non-accidental conditions, and they should critically evaluate assumptions or conclusions in the light of possible bias. […] A veterinarian simply should report any reasonable suspicions of maltreatment where reporting is permissive or unspecified and must report such reasonable suspicions where reporting is mandated."

Often, this means acknowledging that a report from a client claiming abuse may or may not be biased. Physical signs of abuse on an animal, however, are less likely to have a bias behind them. However, that's not to say bias can't exist. Your own bias may color how you view an injury and may misinterpret an accident as intentional. Be aware and report as necessary.

It's also important to know your local laws and regulations. Typically, laws about mandatory reporting of the signs or suspicion of abuse are state-level laws. You can find a rundown of the states that do and don't have mandatory reporting laws in a table here. It may also be important to know whether or not you have immunity from liability for an incorrect or missing report. It's also possible that techs and nurses in your practice also have to report. In short, know your local laws.

How do you report suspected maltreatment of animals in your care? The first step is to identify the relevant agency or authority in your area. Typically, you make a phone call and a verbal report, stating who you are and what kind of report you're making. This, in conjunction with detailed records, can be used to investigate an issue further. A discussion of who to contact can also be found here. A further table can be found in the AMVA book.

Generally, you will focus on the details of an injury and what makes them different from an accidental injury. Avoid discussing who you believe is responsible or even how it may have occurred; that's for the forensic investigation team to find out.

Again, all of this and more, with detailed instructions and discussions of the issues, can be found in the AMVA guide linked above.

Will you have to go to court? The simple answer is maybe. Sometimes, your analysis and report are enough. Other times, a court battle goes deep, and you may be called to deliver your testimony before a grand jury. This is generally a simple matter of answering factual questions to verify details in your report. Typically, only around 5% of cases end up on trial, so the chances of being called to testify are relatively slim. If you are asked to testify, be sure to answer questions simply and honestly without trying to speculate or proactively offer information. Your job is not to do the work of the investigators or prosecutors here, just to verify information you have presented in the past.

At the end of the day, regardless of your role in an abuse case, your goal as a vet remains the same: to provide the best possible care to the animals brought to your practice. It's just a matter of what that means in any specific case.

Becoming Part of Veterinary Forensics

Some people take the idea of seeing the worst of what humans can do and balk. There's no shame in that; it takes a particular kind of person and a strong level of fortitude to see such things without a reaction.

Others, though, may see this as an opportunity to do more tangible good than simply providing routine animal care. If veterinary forensics appeals to you as a path for your career, it's possible to lean in that direction.

There are a variety of options available to you. The first, of course, is standard education. Many schools with veterinary programs offer courses in veterinary forensics, including Master's Degrees in the field.

Another option is to pursue training from the IVFSA or International Veterinary Forensic Science Association.

You can also work with the ASPCA and join the ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Training Program. This program is open to any licensed veterinarian and involves an introduction to forensic veterinary practice, mentorship, and education.

Whatever the position and role you choose to take in veterinary care, know that you're doing good, whatever you're doing. No one person can stop animal cruelty and maltreatment, but we all have our roles to play. Those most suited to front-line investigations can pursue further education and certification as forensic vets; those who don't think they can handle it are still valuable in their roles as traditional vets and specialists.

Do you have any questions about veterinary forensics? If so, be sure to let us know! We'd be more than happy to assist you.

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