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Dog-Fighting DNA Database Breaks New Ground In Crackdown on Animal Cruelty

“Canine CODIS” Technology Unveiled by ASPCA, Humane Society of Missouri, Louisiana SPCA & University of California, Davis
June 15, 2010

NEW YORK--The nation's first criminal dog-fighting DNA database has been established by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), The Humane Society of Missouri (HSMO) and the Louisiana SPCA (LA/SPCA), and will be maintained at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) Veterinary Genetics Laboratory.  Known as the Canine CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the database is designed to help the criminal justice system investigate and prosecute dog fighting cases and address the growing problem of dog fighting using 21st century technology.

"Dog fighting is a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise that leads to the cruel treatment and deaths of thousands of dogs nationwide every year," said Tim Rickey, the ASPCA's Senior Director of Field Investigation and Response. "This database is an unprecedented and vital component in the fight against animal cruelty and will allow us to strengthen cases against animal abusers and seek justice for their victims."

Rickey, the former Animal Cruelty Task Force Director at HSMO, Kathryn Destreza, the ASPCA's Southeast Regional Director, Field Investigation and Response and formerly Director of Humane Law Enforcement for the Louisiana SPCA, and Dr. Melinda Merck, the ASPCA's Senior Director of Veterinary Forensic Sciences and the nation's premier forensic veterinarian, collaborated to create the database, working with Dr. Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA's Senior Vice President of Anti-Cruelty Initiatives and Training.

"This database will connect investigations across the country and internationally, creating  multi-jurisdictional collaboration," said Ms. Destreza, who presented on the Canine CODIS at the recent Veterinary Forensics Conference in Orlando, Fla. "It's another tool we can use toward the elimination of dog fighting."

Dr. Merck, who testifies as a forensic veterinary expert for animal cruelty cases around the country, added, "Juries expect forensic science to support the evidence that's presented to them, and animal cruelty cases are no exception. This database breaks new ground in supplying that evidence for dog fighting investigations."

The Canine CODIS contains individual DNA profiles from dogs that have been seized during dog-fighting investigations and from unidentified samples collected at suspected dog-fighting venues. The HSMO provided the 400 original and initial samples of dog DNA collected from dogs that were seized last July during the nation's largest dog-fighting seizure ever, a multi-state raid led by Mr. Rickey that followed an 18-month investigation by federal and state agencies.

The database is similar to the FBI's human CODIS, a computerized archive that stores DNA profiles from criminal offenders and crime scenes and is used in criminal and missing person investigations. DNA analysis and matching through the database will help law enforcement agencies to identify relationships between dogs, enabling investigators to establish connections between breeders, trainers, and dog-fight operators. Blood collected from dog fighting sites will also be searched against the Canine CODIS database to identify the source.

"The Veterinary Genetics Laboratory has one of the largest sample databases in the world," said Beth Wictum, Director of the Forensics Unit of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory in UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine.  "This is important for estimating the rarity of a DNA profile. The Canine CODIS database is unique because it includes many more DNA markers than are normally tested, and that provides greater power when calculating match probability or assigning parentage."

"When these cases come to trial, it's important to make your strongest case," she adds. "DNA evidence not only establishes links between owners, breeders, and dog fighting sites, it tells a story. We can tie blood spatter on pit walls and clothing, or blood trails found outside of the pit, to a specific dog and tell his story for him. We become the voice for those victims."

How the Canine CODIS Database Works

DNA samples from animals have been used in forensics investigations for over 15 years to help solve criminal investigations. In some cases, the animal may be related to the suspect, the victim or the crime scene.  In other cases, the animal itself is the victim or perpetrator.

In dog-fighting investigations, the dogs' inner cheeks are swabbed to collect DNA in their saliva at the time they are seized.  These swab samples are then submitted to UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory for DNA testing. Law enforcement agencies also collect DNA at suspected dog-fighting venues in samples of blood, saliva, tissue, bones, teeth, feces and urine. These unidentified DNA samples can be submitted to the laboratory at UC Davis for analysis and archiving in the database. 

When an agency submits a sample to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, the DNA is analyzed and the Canine CODIS database is then searched for corresponding DNA profiles. In the event the database search locates a match for the submitted DNA, the lab will notify both the agency that submitted the new sample and the agency that submitted the existing sample.  The Canine CODIS database is only available to law enforcement agencies; analysis is part of the cost of testing.

Dog Fighting Statistics

Although there are no official statistics, the ASPCA estimates that there are tens of thousands of people involved in dog fighting in the United States. Dog fighting is a federal crime, as well as a felony offense in all 50 U.S. states. For more information, visit http://www.aspca.org/dogfighting