Dr. Melinda Merck, ASPCA Forensic Veterinarian—October 26, 2007
Because of TV shows like CSI and Law and Order, real-life jurors expect forensic science to back up all the evidence presented to them—and animal cruelty cases are no exception. ASPCA Forensic Veterinarian Dr. Melinda Merck literally wrote the book on using science in investigating animal cruelty. Merck, who often testifies as a forensic veterinary expert for animal cruelty cases around the country—including animal hoarding, dog fighting and animal torture—has recently authored the textbook Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations.
Dr. Merck joined us in our ASPCA Online Community for a live online chat. Below is the transcript.
I was wondering what prompted you to pursue this profession. I have never met anyone who was looking to make a career in the forensic veterinary field.
Hello, everyone! My interest in this field mostly evolved from seeing cruelty cases in private practice, including working with rescue and animal control groups. In 2000, the felony animal cruelty law was passed in GA and I joined a group called Georgia Legal Professionals for Animals, which conducted educational seminars on the investigation and prosecution of animal cruelty. I had to do more research for these seminars and started working with medical examiners and studying forensics. From there it grew to more work with more cases, and eventually I joined the ASPCA!
What’s the difference between a forensics veterinarian and other veterinarians? Thank you for all your help, and thank you for doing this today.
Forensic veterinary medicine is the application of veterinary medical knowledge to legal matters. Forensics means dealing with legal matters—so what I do is apply my veterinary expertise to legal matters, particularly with animal cruelty. It does require education and training, and I seem to be pioneering this, so with the support of the ASPCA that is a major part of our mission—to educate and train others.
Hi, I am working on my biology degree, with a veterinay medicine concentration. I am wondering what type of education or experience I would need if I decided to become an ASPCA animal cop instead of a veterinarian? Would I qualify with a biology degree and vet tech experience? I am on a war path to prevent animal cruelty, and can't decide what field I could help this cause with best! Thanks!
Click here for info on becoming an HLE cop! Requirements for becoming a humane law enforcement officer vary with the jurisdiction around the country, depending on who investigates cruelty, so check with your area or the ASPCA. Another aspect we are seeing an interest in is vet techs getting crime scene investigation training and assisting human CSIs on animal cases or otherwise providing service to cruelty investigators. I think your qualifications are excellent as vet tech—these investigations require someone knowing an animal's response to fear and pain, and vets and vet techs are the experts at knowing this type of behavior. Good luck!!!
I'm a great fan of your profession, but the details of what you do are still kind of a mystery to me. How can I explain to elementary-aged kids what you do?
Evidence associated with any crime has to be analyzed and interpreted in the proper context. In order to properly identify evidence, analyze it and interpret the findings, you have to know animals and animal behavior. This is what I do and what I bring to a crime scene. I am an animal expert investigating crimes against animals—I conduct crime scene investigation and then the examination of the victim (which is the animal). And then I work with investigators and prosecutors to develop the case and bring it to court. Hopefully you can adjust that to use for them!
What kinds of cases do you see the most in your profession? What are some typical motivations for animal cruelty?
Animal cruelty is actually defined by the law. There are local laws (ordinances), state and federal laws. These range from improper housing, food or water, lack of medical care, gunshots, stabbings, blunt force trauma, sexual assault, ritualistic crimes, drowning, asphyxia, neglect and animal fighting. The most common type of cruelty is neglect, and sometimes that is not a felony, even if the animal starves to death. This has to do with intent—if we can prove intent, then we can often get a higher charge. The motivations are variable and sometimes situation-dependant. There is a huge link between domestic violence and animal cruelty. The animal is used to instill fear and gain power and control over the family or partner. Some cases may be impulse control/anger management; some may be purely for sadistic reasons. Whenever a child commits cruelty, it is a huge warning sign of probable abuse going on to that child—emotional and/or physical. As for hoarders—well, that is very complex. The Tufts Hoarding Consortium website has a lot more information on hoarding and the possible reasons and triggers behind this behavior.
What possesses people to be cruel to animals? Any ideas at all?
The question I just answered (listed above this one) may be of help. The ultimate thing everyone must realize is that animal abuse holds no socioeconomic barriers—it can be anyone. And the most important thing the public can do to help is learn to identify signs of animal abuse and report all suspicions to the authorities. The ASPCA has a cruelty section on its website and we will be developing more in the future that can provide you more information.
Tell me about your book, Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations. I'm very interested.
I wrote this book to provide a more detailed resource for veterinarians, though it can be a valuable resource for investigators as well. It is published by Blackwell Publishing and available at http://www.veterinaryforensics.com/ or www.aspca.org. It covers the legal system, crime scene investigation, recognition of all types of cruelty and how to collect evidence, testing and determining time of death. I have certainly a lot more to add for the next edition since I finished writing a year ago! I am working on several areas of research and documentation of injuries, including skeletal remains. We do not have the equivalent of forensic anthropology in animals, which is why I am very interested in developing that side.
What is the worst case you've ever been involved in?
Hands down, it was the puppy torture case in Atlanta last December. Two young men, ages 17 and 19, broke into a community center that had just been refurbished in their apartment complex. They destroyed it by breaking windows, walls, the computers and so on. Then they took a three-month-old puppy and hog-tied her with duct tape, muzzled her with duct tape, poured paint on her, tried to light her on fire (unsuccessfully) and then placed her in an oven and baked her to death. Then they brought children in to see the puppy in the oven, and threatened them not to tell. It was the most horrendous case I have seen. The case was taken to trial, where we got a hung jury with 11-1 for conviction. A re-trial date was set, and three days before the start the defendants pled guilty on all counts (1 burglary, 1 criminal damage to property, 1 animal cruelty, 3 child cruelty, 3 terrorist-like threats to children) and received the max on all counts to serve concurrently, which amounted to 20 years—10 to serve in prison and 10 to serve as probation. They also had disturbing juvenile records—one committed arson and the other had sexually assaulted a child.
Hi, I remember reading on the ASPCA website that you were involved in the Michael Vick case. What was your role—did you deal with dogs that died from dog fights? Thanks.
I am involved with the Michael Vick case and am very limited on what I can say. My role was with the execution of the second federal search warrant where I excavated the graves and examined the remains of the dogs exhumed from the graves. The U.S. Attorney's Office and the USDA investigators have done an exceptional job for this case. Both the ASPCA and the U.S. Attorney's Office have issued several press releases, and there are the pleas from all the defendants that you can read. As a reminder, the first sentencing hearing for the case is for Purnell Peace and Quanas Phillips on November 30in Richmond, VA; Michael Vick's hearing is December 10, and Tony Taylor’s is on December 14.
Why isn't it proven that a dog beaten in the head with a fist shows signs of cautious behavior? When he is recognized by his owner, is his change of behavior used as evidence?
The behavioral signs of abuse have not been properly researched. We are actually working on that at the ASPCA. There can be a host of different responses, and just because a dog wags his tail at the abuser does not mean the dog is not being abused. So, it gets complicated, because there can be several different causes for behaviors. And we have to do more to document these signs before they can be used properly in court. Sometimes we can have very distinctive behaviors that may be used. Great question.
What are the tools/instruments you always have on you when you're at a crime scene?
I actually have several crime scene kits. For buried remains, I have special tools to excavate a grave, including a collapsible grid from which to take measurements, a GPS unit, a sifter for all dirt removed, a tool to collect soil samples, and all my evidence jars and bags. For collecting insects—I have a net for live insects, special jars and preservative fluid, and a group of ID cards to identify the insects. I have special thermometers for the animal and the environment, a large UV blacklight, magnifier, Mikrosil rubber casting material, trace evidence lifters, Blue Star, Phenothalein to trace blood, and all sorts of tweezers and evidence containers. When I come to a scene, I never know what we are going to find or need, so I have to have everything!
Greetings, I live just outside Atlanta in Smyrna, and I have for years wanted to get involved in rescuing animals who are abused or neglected. There is no SPCA in Atlanta (or Georgia), as far as I know. There is, however, a CSI in Atlanta. Can you give me any advice on where I might go to help and what I should do to be eligible to help?
There actually is a Georgia SPCA that just opened up in Gwinnett County. Joan Sammond is the director and they rescue animals from kill shelters, most especially from cruelty cases. I would contact her for more info and ideas! She knows a lot of people in the rescue and shelter community.
Dr. Merck, do you think that the Western world will ever see a day when sentences for convicted criminals charged with animal cruelty will be harsher? Sometimes there's just a slap on the wrist. But other times, even the maximum sentence delivered for killing an animal (such as the cop in Miami who kicked his dog to death last September) is only six months. Seems a small price to pay for taking a life.
Are these small sentences a result of overcrowded prisons and an overstressed legal system? Or are they simply a reflection on our society as a whole, that animals are only valued so much?
I think with time we will see an increase in sentences. There are several things affecting this, some of which I have already addressed. One is showing the link to future acts of violence—there have been several studies, papers and books published on this subject. But we need and are working on a tracking system to show offenders who are convicted of animal cruelty that go on to commit other crimes. As we get those stats, we can use those for higher sentences. That is the basis of sentencing—they look at an offender’s ability for rehabilitation and risk of re-offending, and then determine the most appropriate sentence. This is still very new in most jurisdictions. I think the climate is very good for lawmakers to make changes due to so many recent cases in the news. The voting members of the public need to recognize that they are a voice that will be heard if they send an email or make a phone call to their legislators. I recommend that everyone join the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade and monitor laws in your state and on the federal level and respond to any calls to action!
First of all, thank you for the work you do and for taking the time to participate in this chat! My question is, do you think that the distorted view by a majority of society and the media of so-called "terror breeds" can ever be corrected?
I have worked with a case like this before and it was quite clear the dog was not being aggressive before the defendant injured the dog in supposed self defense. The ASPCA’s Randy Lockwood, Senior Vice President, Anti-Cruelty Initiatives and Training, and his legislative services team are the ones who primarily do the work in this area. There are some interesting stats stating that the majority of dog attacks are from mixed breeds, but the media only reports a small percentage of those, yet reports most of the Pit bull related dog attacks. Each case has to be evaluated on its own merit, because there are usually several factors involved both from the dog and human side. The ASPCA stance is that each dog should be evaluated as an individual.
What kind of evidence do you find? What evidence do you use to prove a case of animal cruelty? Hoarding? Could you give us some examples?
The evidence I find varies with the type of case. I actually examine the crime scene as well as the animal in most of my cases. I am looking for evidence that can show me if a crime happened and what event took place. I look for blood evidence, trace evidence, fluids, weapons, poisons and so on. I look for clues to what type of weapon may have been used—I actually take a rubber cast of any wound to match to any suspected weapon. I use a UV light to look for fluid, fibers and blood. I also use something called Blue Star, which fluoresces hidden blood a blue color. For hoarding, I look for evidence of how long the animals have been in those conditions, what diseases or types of neglect they are suffering from. We take ammonia readings in those homes, which can be toxic to humans and animals. I also look for insect evidence (yes, I get excited when we have maggots!) because they are the most accurate way to determine time of injury or death. I work with several forensic specialists to analyze these types of evidence.
I'd like to know the best part of your job. I know contributing to the safety and welfare of the animals plays a huge part, but what is it about the job that drives you to continue working in this capacity? What do you consider to be the very best opportunity you have to teach other people?
The best part of the job is when we succeed—this can mean a conviction, successful intervention or when the animal is now protected from future harm. I work with a group of investigators and prosecutors who support going after the criminals who commit cruelty—that continually validates what I am doing and keeps me motivated. The ASPCA has been the biggest supporter—both on the investigation or education side. I do not know if there is one best opportunity I have had to teach others— and every time I lecture, whether to vet students, police or prosecutors both in the U.S. and abroad, there is a ripple effect—they go out and do more for animals. So, every new opportunity is always the best opportunity
I so admire your work, Dr. Merck. Thank you for being here! I wish I were there with you—camera in hand and learning everything that one can know about this amazing field!
I will give you the last case in the news
Are we getting worse as a race?
—Mary Alice, Cornwall's Voice for Animals/UK
Actually, the fact that the case was successfully prosecuted without the victim being available for examination is a huge win! You take your wins and build on them and learn from the losses. I have found that the more educated investigators, prosecutors, judges and law makers are, the more likely there will be a successful outcome. We have problems all over the U.S. But I have found that when I testify in areas that have had a history of poor outcomes, we tend to get good results and sentences. This goes back to the fact that my testimony educates those involved. The ASPCA has worked on education internationally —I just got back from doing a series of lectures in Australia and New Zealand that were very effective in helping them with their cases and laws. We are always open to doing more! I do not see the public ever becoming desensitized to crimes against the helpless—children or animals.
What type of education do you need for your line of work?
There are many aspects to what I do. I advocate that a veterinarian needs to be involved at the beginning of these investigations. But there are investigators, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and crime scene investigators that are usually involved. So, the education depends on what field of expertise we are starting with. For animal cruelty investigation education, the ASPCA has several people that lecture at different conferences, workshops, and seminars on this. We also have authored several textbooks and papers on this—all in order to help provide education and training.
How do you handle it? How are you able to stay strong when you know the animal you're working on is the victim of abuse and/or neglect? I know I'd never be able to do what you do. All the people who work for any animal shelter are my heroes.
It is certainly difficult to work with these cases because they represent the ultimate breakdown of the human-animal bond. I think my work as a veterinarian has helped me because you learn to compartmentalize in order to do your job—you cannot succumb to emotion while working on an animal or case. For cruelty, I turn it into a puzzle that I have to solve. My goal is to gather evidence to find and successfully prosecute the offender. I realize that what’s done is done and I have to work toward justice. It is very hard because of my empathy for animals, but the best thing I can do for them is be their voice.
I just wanted to send heartfelt thank you for the important, and I am sure difficult, work that you are doing.
Thank you so much, and thanks to everyone for their interest! I cannot stress enough that the public reporting of suspicion of abuse is the most important way for us to fight cruelty.