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CSI techniques to work magic in animal kingdom

January 16, 2009

University of Florida forensic toxicologist Bruce Goldberger

CSI has put Las Vegas, New York and Miami on the forensic map. Now, an American university is going to work a little CSI magic in the animal kingdom.

But the University of Florida's effort isn't about television.

In this real-life drama, necropsies, assessment of skeletal remains for abuse and trauma, and crime scene analysis of hair, fibres and bloodstains will be used to solve cases of cruelty to animals.

University officials are partnering with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to form the first veterinary forensic sciences programme dedicated to the teaching, research and application of forensic science in the investigation and prosecution of crimes against animals.

The programme will handle cases from around the country - possibly up to 200 within the first two years - and provide consultancy and training. Additional details will be presented at the North American Veterinary Conference, which opens on Saturday in Orlando, Florida.

The collaboration between the university and the ASPCA started a year ago, when the two institutions organised a conference on the use of forensic science to investigate animal cruelty.

Co-ordinators expected only a few dozen to attend, but instead were met by nearly 200 people from across the United States and nine other countries.

That unanticipated interest helped fuel the development of the programme.

"This is a newly emerging field," said forensic toxicologist Bruce Goldberger, director of the William R. Maples Centre for Forensic Medicine at the university. "We are translating our knowledge of forensic science to a new field devoted to solving crimes against animals."

The new programme will dramatically increase the number of professionals trained in forensic investigation of animal cruelty cases - by potentially hundreds each year, Goldberger said.

In so doing, it could also help uncover instances where the abusers are also targeting people, experts say.

The programme is being established with an initial gift of $US150,000 and a commitment of support for the next three years from the ASPCA.

Over the last few years, the number and stringency of laws relating to animal cruelty has increased in the US. Penalties can include extended prison time, such as in the high-profile dog fighting case involving professional football player Michael Vick.

"That means the standards of investigations and of the science used in documenting what has happened to animals are much, much higher than even five years ago," said Randall Lockwood, ASPCA senior vice-president for anti-cruelty field services.

There is no national tracking of animal cruelty cases in the US. The programme will allow for better collection of such data.

Each year the ASPCA investigates more than 5000 cruelty cases and arrests or issues summonses to more than 300 people. Scenarios include simple neglect, abandonment, animal hoarding and blood sports such as dog fighting.

Lieutentant Sherry Schlueter, who calls herself the "original animal cop", is credited with starting - in the early 1980s - the first animal cruelty investigation unit within a law enforcement agency.

Today she is section supervisor of the Special Victims and Family Crimes section of the Broward County (Florida) Sheriff's Office.

She said the new programme will help protect not only animals, but also humans who might be harmed by the same assailants.

She heads one of the first police units in the country in which officers are trained to recognise and investigate links between animal abuse and violence against humans, including child abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

"My goal was always to get law enforcement to recognise animal cruelty for the crime it is," she said. "Victims are victims - and batterers are batterers - and it shouldn't matter what species, what age, what gender."

Courses within the new programme will include forensic entomology, buried-remains excavation, bloodstain pattern analysis, bite-mark analysis and animal crime scene processing. Training will be done in classroom settings, online, and through the just-formed International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association.

Often, veterinarians presented with cases of animal abuse or neglect are not sure what to look for to establish cause and manner of death, or to prove that a crime was committed.

"Veterinarians are frequently asked to participate in cruelty investigations, yet we don't receive special training on that in veterinary school," said veterinarian Julie Levy, director of Maddie's Shelter Medicine Programme at the University of Florida. "There is a substantial unmet need for that training to be provided to veterinarians."



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