First-Ever Vet Forensics Program to Launch
Animal cruelty investigations are likely to benefit from more forensics specialists the University of Florida's new program is bound to produce. (ZT Pet News Photo Illustration)
NEW YORK -- Having a firm grasp on animal forensics and toxicology is key to cracking cruelty cases, but sometimes, a lack of veterinary and police training prevents investigators from solving crimes.
The University of Florida at Gainesville and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are now working to fill that cited void in the field with animal forensics and toxicology courses.
The program, which will launch in spring 2010, is the first-ever veterinary forensics science department at a major university, its organizers say.
"I didn't think this would ever be possible," said Melinda Merck, senior director of veterinary forensics for the ASPCA.
Merck plans on moving from Atlanta, Ga., to Gainesville to oversee the program's launch.
She says this additional training could change the face of cruelty cases everywhere.
"I've spent years trying to network and and bring people with their areas of expertise together, to get specialists to help me with cases," Merck said. "I've been having to piecemeal cases for all this time, and now we are going to be able to unify, to bring the forensic community together.
"When you add forensic science and testing to an animal case, you get a lot stronger cases, you get greater investigations, I should say, and the outcome is better."
Last month, the New York City ASPCA solved a cruelty case by using human DNA testing for the first time, as Zootoo Pet News previously reported. In that situation, a burned cat was found three blocks from an apartment building, where a small fire was found to have ensued.
The ASPCA paired the cat's DNA with the burnt fur and hair found plastered to the apartment's floors. Two teenage boys -- one of whom lived in the building -- were later arrested and charged with aggravated animal cruelty, among other charges.
But that kind of success is a rarity, Merck says, given the obstacles cruelty investigators face daily.
While police typically approach an animal crime scene like they would a human one, the similarities stop there. Animal and human bodies decompose differently, for example, and bleed less.
Without the proper, specific training, it can be challenging to identify when an animal died, among other things.
"When pathologists get contacted by law enforcement to assist in cruelty cases, they may have tried to assist on their own, but they feel uncomfortable, because they don't have the formal background and training that is required," explained Jason Byrd, an associate professor at the University of Florida and a forensic entomologist.
Vets are often also approached to judge an animal's remains, but they, too, frequently lack the formal training required to make a complete and accurate assessment, Merck says.
State crime labs also "don't want to do animal sources of testing because they want to keep human and animal tests different, for quality control," she explained.
"We have to go through private specialists, or a private lab or individuals, maybe through a university, in order to get the tests done. It's very challenging."
The end result is that cases will get dropped for no good reason, Byrd says -- and not because of an apathetic response to the situation at hand.
"I realized there was a disconnect in the animal anti-cruelty movement," Byrd said. "There wasn't a lack of interest from the vets or the law enforcement -- it was quite the opposite. They knew what was needed to successfully follow through on a case, but they didn't have the tools to do so."
Since the University of Florida recently announced the program, it has seen a widespread out-pour of support from students and veterinarians alike.
"It kind of had a ripple effect," Merck explained. "The excitement is there, and the interest is going to be tremendous.
"This is the first program, but I doubt it is going to be the last."
Merck and Byrd hosted a conference on the program several weeks ago, expecting no more than 50 people to attend.
"We had to cap it out at 170 people," Merck recalled. "We didn't even promote it."
The program will start off as a 15-credit certificate course, but will eventually expand to be a separate veterinary forensic science program, Byrd said.
"Within that program, we will have a vet science track, and a pre-professional program on a master's level. Eventually, we will offer a PhD program in forensic medicine."
The certificate course isn't just limited to vet students -- anyone, including practicing veterinarians -- can sign up. People can also take it online.
"The more we can educate, the more investigations will get underway," Merck said. "Education is key ... There really is no limit on where we can take this. This is a groundbreaking, exciting time."
To learn more about the University of Florida's new veterinary forensic science program, visit ForensicsScience.ufl.edu.
Amy Lieberman is a staff reporter for Zootoo Pet News. She can be reached at email@example.com
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