Anatomy of a Crime Scene
Veterinary Forensic Science is a critical tool in the fight against animal cruelty, and our work doesn't end after we remove animals from a crime scene.
Physical evidence, including live and deceased animals, blood, fingerprints and medications, is necessary to show the link between victims, suspects and the scene.
The specially trained members of our Veterinary Forensic Science teams assist law enforcement agencies with crime scenes by locating, documenting and preserving physical evidence in animal-cruelty related investigations.
Before arriving at a scene, the Forensic team assesses the information given to them by law enforcement. They consider how many team members and what types of equipment will be needed, as well as potential issues or dangers they may encounter.
Upon scene arrival, a photographer and videographer walk through the property documenting the scene conditions before anything is disturbed and make initial observations that will determine how the scene should be processed. Items in danger of contamination or damage, and animals in critical need, are attended to first.
Documentation is a key activity in crime scene processing.
There are four major forms of documentation:
All of these are necessary to ensure accurate and thorough documentation.
Notes are taken by both the Crime Scene Analyst and the Forensic Veterinarian, and include such information as descriptions of evidence, observations about animal living conditions, areas which will require special attention, such as burials and many other relevant pieces of information.
Photographs are used to illustrate an accurate representation of the scene and evidence. Overall and mid-range photos are taken to show the location of the scene and its surroundings, as well as the location of the evidence within the scene. Close-up photographs are taken of items of evidence and injuries to show specific details.
Videos are taken of the animals and other evidence as a supplement to photography when the behaviors, movement or timing are key information.
Sketches of the scene layout are made to show the spatial relationships of the animals to one another and of non-animal evidence. They are also used to document measurements of the animal enclosures and living areas.
Along with the lead investigator, members of the Forensic team conduct a systematic search of the scene to ensure all the evidence is located.
Collection and Packaging
Evidence must be properly collected and packaged to avoid contamination, damage and loss. The specific methods and materials used will depend on the type of evidence being collected. For example, trace evidence will be collected with tweezers or tape and packaged in a small container or envelope. Alternatively, a bloodstain will be collected with a sterile swab and packaged in a paper envelope or swab box.
Once the evidence has been placed into its proper packaging, the container is labeled, sealed and signed to prevent tampering, and is then documented on an evidence log. A chain of custody form is also used to track everyone who has had possession of the item and everywhere it has been from the time it was collected on scene until its disposal. If the item is presented in court, this document will show that it is the same item initially collected.
Some analysis can occur on scene, but most will happen in a laboratory. The ASPCA has two forensic laboratories, one in New York City which handles cases from that region, and one in Gainesville, Florida, which assists with cruelty casework from all across the United States. Between these two locations, our Forensic team members are able to examine and evaluate live animals, perform necropsies of deceased animals, analyze skeletal remains, process items for fingerprints and test items for the presence of biological fluids and trace evidence. Additionally, our Forensic teams work with other laboratories where they can submit evidence for further types of testing, such as DNA, trace evidence and entomology.
For every case, our Forensic team members conclude their crime scene and lab analyses with a written report. They are also frequently required to testify their findings in court.