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Veterinary forensics: doing the right thing
  1. Melinda Merck

Abstract

Melinda Merck is a forensic veterinarian consulting on cases involving animals; she is based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. She also provides training for veterinary, attorney and law enforcement professionals internationally and developed the first veterinary forensics course in the USA

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IT is always amazing, and humbling, to look back at your career and ask ‘How did I get here?’ I spent most of my early career as the owner of a feline practice in Atlanta. In addition, I volunteered my services with local shelters and worked with several rescue organisations. Through my practice and volunteer work I would see cases of suspected abuse, which I would report to the authorities (a rare occurrence in those days), often taking in the victims for adoption through my clinic. I have always been drawn to those that are neglected and mistreated, driven to do the right thing. So, when faced with a case of abuse and the dilemma of reporting, it simply came down to this: if not me, then who?

Dr Merck (left) examines the remains of mutilated cats with Eileen Drever, senior protection officer for the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Natural investigators

In 2003, a client who was aware of my passion for these cases told me about a newly formed group, Georgia Legal Professionals for Animals (GLPA), which was comprised of attorneys, paralegals, and animal welfare advocates. Two years before, the state of Georgia had passed a new Animal Welfare Act making animal cruelty a felony that was punishable by up to five years in prison for each offence. The problem was that the law enforcement authorities were not investigating these offences and prosecutors were not prosecuting . . . because they did not know how. GLPA was formed as a non-profit organisation to provide free seminars for the police, attorneys, and veterinarians on how to investigate and prosecute animal cruelty.

I joined this group and was immediately asked to provide lectures on animal crime scene investigation and forensics. The problem was that the only related materials published on animals were the ‘battered pet’ series of articles published in the Journal of Small Animal Practice (Munro and Thrusfield 2001a,b,c).

Veterinarians are natural investigators and, as a devout mystery bibliophile, I had an idea of what to look for at a scene and with animals. However, I needed to understand more about crime scene investigation procedures, medico-legal death investigations, human forensic pathology, and the forensic science available for human crimes. I began working with local medical examiners, observing postmortem examination techniques and consulting forensic specialists on their areas of expertise. I purchased and read numerous textbooks on various forensic subjects, sifting through all the material for how it could apply to the examination of animals and crime scenes. At the same time, I started working as a consultant to local investigators and prosecutors for all of their cruelty cases, forming my own veterinary forensic consulting business.

Most of my local work was with an investigator who had previously been a crime scene investigator. Together, we mutually learned each other's areas of expertise and developed valuable procedures on handling these cases. I shared what I was learning with the veterinary community, giving lectures at major veterinary conferences. This led to my coauthoring a book on the investigation of animal cruelty and, ultimately, to writing the first US veterinary forensic textbook, ‘Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations’, which is now in its second edition.

All of these endeavours were happening simultaneously with my continued private practice work. Multitasking is a skill most veterinarians possess and was key to managing my time. Clients were informed of my animal cruelty work which engendered understanding if it required a sudden change in schedule. They also lived vicariously and supported the mission by volunteering their time with the animal victims at the hospital and donating money towards their medical care. I spent my days off writing research and preparing for lectures, taking a few weeks off to finish writing the veterinary textbook.

Consultancy

In 2006, I was asked to be a veterinary forensics consultant for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). This is a national animal welfare organisation that does not investigate animal cruelty nationally, but provides support to local, state and federal authorities on their investigations. I sold my practice in late 2006 and went to work for them full-time for the next four years, continuing my local consulting practice on cruelty cases. At the ASPCA my job was to develop the field of veterinary forensics. I took courses and workshops in the human forensic and crime scene fields to learn more about things such as blood stain pattern analysis, death scene investigations, clandestine burial detection, archeological excavations and forensic anthropology. Animal forensic osteology was a true passion of mine and I studied and worked with forensic anthropologists to learn how to analyse animal skeletal remains. I consulted with veterinarians, prosecutors, defence attorneys and investigators on suspected abuse cases, providing both remote and on-scene support. I was also a member of the ASPCA's disaster response team and took courses on disaster response. Most of field response animal cruelty cases I was involved with were large scale, involving puppy farms, sanctuaries and animal fighting. The organisation and planning required for these types of cases is very similar to that required for a disaster response.

To help support the veterinary work in the field, I designed the first mobile animal CSI truck, which provided examination areas and held all the equipment needed for crime scene processing. It allows for a safe and secure environment for the animals as well as the collection of evidence.

Performing field postmortem examinations and consulting with forensic anthropologists, Dr Lynne Bell and Dr Ana Boza, during the Whistler sled dog killing case in British Columbia

Investigating a mass grave of dogs in a dog fighting case

Education

My biggest passion has always been for providing education. I developed veterinary forensic courses for the veterinary schools at the Universities of Georgia and Florida. I became a board member of the North American Veterinary Conference, one of the largest in the world, where I chair the annual Animal CSI programme. I provide lectures and workshops internationally to the veterinary community and investigators. Speaking internationally has given me an opportunity to learn about the animal welfare issues around the world and their approaches to problems.

However, I found I missed being involved in the more complex cruelty cases where I learned the most. So, in 2011 I resigned from the ASPCA to go back to consulting full-time, where I am involved with cases nationally and internationally. What makes my work exciting and fulfilling is that the learning curve never flattens and the work is always about doing the right thing. It is a road less travelled that provides another way to be the animal's voice.

References

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