Guest blog by Natasha Whitling, Senior Manager of the ASPCA’s Media & Communications team
A chorus of north Florida bugs buzzed loudly while an animal control officer from Baltimore methodically scraped thin layers of sandy earth out of a shallow “grave.” The soil was deposited in a plastic bucket then carefully carried to a sifter, where it would be examined for small evidence items like shell casings and bone fragments.
The officer was one of about ten participants from across the country that attended an Animal Crime Scene Workshop in Gainesville, Florida, last week. Under the guidance of Dr. Jason Byrd, Forensic Entomologist and Director of Education of the ASPCA/University of Florida Veterinary Forensic Sciences program, and Amanda Fitch, Forensic Analyst for the ASPCA/University of Florida Veterinary Forensic Sciences program, participants spent three days collecting evidence and excavating mock gravesites.
Lectures covered a range of topics, including how to properly secure a crime scene, the collection of entomological evidence, and determining time of death. When lectures were complete, participants would trek a mile into the dense pine and saw palmetto forest to apply their new skills to mock crime scenes with real animal remains.
Patience and precision are a forensic expert’s constant companions. From the first moment on a crime scene, each potential piece of evidence must be identified, marked and eventually collected and accounted for. Every step is taken with extreme care to not only identify relevant evidence but ensure that it is not contaminated or damaged in any way.
The workshop—and a companion week-long workshop called Bugs, Bones and Botany traditionally offered in October—has trained hundreds of veterinarians, law enforcement officials and animal welfare professionals in the proper way to process an animal crime scene. Participants take the skills they learned back to their home cities and use them to fight animal cruelty—some almost immediately.
“I had one student turn around and use what they learned the very next day when they returned home,” Dr. Byrd said. “This is a really valuable hands-on experience that you just can’t get anywhere else.”
The ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program is the nation’s first such curriculum within an educational institution. It promotes the application of forensic sciences to veterinary medicine to aid in the understanding, prevention and prosecution of animal cruelty. Since the program was launched in 2009, the ASPCA has provided nearly $1.6 million in grant funding to develop these initiatives.
We are very pleased to announce that Dr. Randall Lockwood, Senior Vice President for Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects at the ASPCA, has been honored with an Achievement Award by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
The award was delivered at the Annual Scientific Meeting, held in Seattle this past February. Over the last 25 years, Dr. Lockwood has served as an expert on dog aggression, dog bite prevention, dog fighting, and the interactions between people and animals. He has given testimony in numerous trials involving cruelty to animals, and has written several books on the subject. In addition, his efforts to increase awareness of the connection between animal abuse and other forms of violence were profiled in the 1999 BBC documentary “The Cruelty Connection.” He is an active leader of The Link Coalition, a network of animal welfare and human service professionals who focus on “The Link”—areas where animal cruelty, domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse intersect. His most recent book is this year’s Animal Cruelty and Freedom of Speech: When Worlds Collide.
Dr. Lockwood has been with the ASPCA since 2005, and we thrilled and proud to congratulate him on this latest achievement.
The ASPCA is assisting in the forensic evidence collection, removal, transport and sheltering of more than 60 fighting roosters from a property in Spencer, Indiana. Other animals including dogs and farm animals were also seized from the property. We’re assisting at the request of the Indiana Gaming Commission, the Gaming Control Division and the Monroe County Humane Association.
At the property this morning, responders discovered rooster remains and roosters showing signs of starvation and other conditions requiring medical attention. The roosters were housed in outdoor pens or tethered outside with no access to water.
The animals were transferred to a temporary shelter where they will receive veterinary care from the ASPCA’s medical team. ASPCA veterinary technicians, animal handlers and responders are also assisting on the scene and at the temporary shelter.
A search warrant, issued by Owen County Circuit Court, was executed Wednesday morning for the removal of the birds, as was an arrest warrant for Jeffrey Russell Pierce, 26. Pierce was arrested on charges of possession of fighting animals, promoting an animal fighting contest and possession of animal fighting paraphernalia.
In Indiana, cockfighting and the possession of birds for fighting are Class D felonies, each punishable by up to three years in a state prison and a maximum $10,000 fine. Possession of implements is a Class B misdemeanor with up to 180 days in a state jail and a maximum $1,000 fine.
The ASPCA is also assisting the Indiana Gaming Control Division in documenting animal related evidence for the criminal case and lending the services of its Field Investigations and Response and Veterinary Forensics teams. The Indiana State Police, the Indiana Board of Animal Health and the Owen County Prosecutor are also assisting in the operation.
“Cockfighting is a brutal blood sport where the unwilling participants—the roosters—are forced to fight, often to the death, for the entertainment and financial gain of their owners,” says Terry Mills, Director of Blood Sports for the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response team. “The ASPCA is proud to lend our expertise in animal fighting and forensic evidence collection to local authorities to help put an end to this disturbing activity and secure justice for the animal victims.”