Q&A with ASPCA Forensic Analyst Amanda Fitch
This fall, Florida International University (FIU), an ASPCA partner, introduces a Professional Science Master’s in Veterinary Forensic Science, a 16-month online program that offers unique training to prevent and respond effectively to animal cruelty in communities across the country.
This launch comes during National Forensic Science Week (September 17-23), which recognizes the contribution forensic science provides to the criminal justice system.
In honor of both events and to learn more about the work of forensic science, we posed several questions to ASPCA Forensic Analyst Amanda Fitch, who has worked for the ASPCA since 2017. Amanda has testified in court and authored and co-authored several publications related to her work on animal crime scenes.
The ASPCA Forensic Sciences Team provides examinations and analyses to assist law enforcement agencies nationwide in prosecuting animal cruelty cases. When the team is called on by local law enforcement agencies to provide on-scene forensics assistance in animal cruelty cases, Amanda and her team get busy.
What led you to forensic science work?
I took the long route. I started my career in archaeology. In both professions, you’re trying to solve a question or an unknown, and you’re documenting evidence. Through archaeology, I realized my interest in Forensic Anthropology and the analysis of skeletal remains. So, transitioning to crime scene investigations, and then to animal forensic science was a natural segue.
How does your work impact animal cruelty cases?
Everything we do can be utilized by law enforcement and prosecutors. My job is, at its core, the same as that of any other crime scene investigator or forensic analyst. I just have a different area of specialty.
On a site, I’m documenting the scene and evidence as they relate to animal cruelty crimes so that the information can be used by investigators and veterinarians. In the lab, I’m trying to determine if an item potentially used in a crime against an animal can be tied to a specific individual.
I examine the skeletal remains of animals to determine if there’s any additional information not identified through the necropsy or digital imaging (such as X-rays or CT) to help determine information about the deceased animal like their age, sex or trauma. Trauma includes injuries that might be associated with the animal’s death or that occurred prior to death that might reveal a history of abuse.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
I love being able to assist thousands of animals while performing a job that I enjoy. And I love learning.
When I started this job, I knew nothing about animal cruelty. My first cruelty scene was a dogfighting case, and I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know what types of non-animal evidence were associated with dogfighting, the type of environmental information that needed to be documented or the forensic testing of non-animal evidence to consider. The same was true for neglect and substandard breeding cases.
And there wasn’t anywhere to go for that information. There were veterinary forensic references regarding animals as evidence, but there wasn’t a reference on what to document at a hoarding scene, for example.
I gathered information from cruelty investigators and veterinarians, and then I assessed the standard steps of processing a human crime scene and adapted them to accommodate these unique animal scenes where there are live victims who may need emergency care while maintaining scene and evidence integrity.
I want to constantly learn and share what I’ve been able to figure out from a crime scene perspective—what needs to be documented and what doesn’t—all while helping thousands of animals.
And I want to help anywhere I can. Being able to offer our services to other agencies so they can pursue these animal crime cases is rewarding. Most times, resources are going toward crimes against people, so it’s incredible to see more animal cases coming in and helping those agencies that don’t have the financial means to, for example, pay for a necropsy.
We perform necropsies and skeletal analysis on deceased remains to aid in prosecution efforts. We also examine items for fingerprints and other types of forensic evidence.
What makes forensic science work uniquely challenging?
Crime scenes are very challenging. You only get one shot to collect all the evidence you need and make sure you’ve got everything documented before it’s disturbed and, because you won’t be back. It’s a lot like archaeology.
After I earned my master’s, I worked as a Medicolegal Investigator for two Medical Examiner offices. As far as crime scenes go, animal scenes are unique. A standard human crime scene is usually inside a house or car, or at the scene of an accident. But animal scenes are often stretched across multiple acres that must be documented and searched. And the evidence is alive. The animals in these cases are not just victims, each one is also an item of evidence, sometimes in need of critical care.
Even the hazards at animal crime scenes are different. Crime scene investigators (CSIs) are accustomed to being aware of the possibilities of bloodborne pathogens, but not zoonotic diseases or ammonia levels. There are other hazards, too—animals may try to bite you or run away from you.
Forensic work can also be emotionally challenging. I have the advantage of having worked on human crime scenes before getting involved with animal cruelty scenes.
How much of your work takes place in the field versus the lab?
Right now, a lot of our work takes place in the lab. Since we moved into our new facility, we’ve had increased requests for forensic processing and osteology work. I love being in the field, but it sets me back in the lab. I used to deploy monthly. Now it’s half that amount.
We also attend forensic and veterinary conferences. So, I’m backlogged right now on osteology cases—a service no one else offers. A lot of crime labs don’t accept evidence from animal cruelty cases for processing due to their own backlogs from human crimes.
If an agency has non-animal evidence, skeletal remains or a body for a necropsy, we’ll work those cases at our lab in Gainesville. If we’re needed to write reports or testify, we’ll do that, too.
Please tell us about some of your most memorable cases.
In Nye County, Nevada last September, where nearly 300 live dogs were removed from a scene, I dug a massive burial pit in scorching 111-degree heat, searching for animal remains in an area where freshly disturbed soil had been identified. I discovered a lot of animal remains in garbage bags and pulled them out to be photographed. I’ll never forget being in that pit in the heat, or the stench.
In a Walton County, Florida dogfighting case, while analyzing the fractured skull remains of a dog, I discovered two gunshot wounds and determined which of the two occurred first. With that information, Dr. Rachel Touroo concluded that the first gunshot wound did not immediately kill the dog and it did not die a humane death. Because of that, an additional felony charge of animal cruelty—cruel death and pain and suffering—was added to the case, which also led to another charge of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. It was great to know that our findings affected the outcome of the case.
Seeing so many animal victims must be difficult at times. How do you cope with that stress?
The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “The way to do field work is to never come up for air until it’s all over.” That applies to crime scene work too. You have to look beyond what’s right in front of you and remember why you’re doing this. You’re going to be a part of this animal’s story. It might be a bad day, but you’ll get through it.
Of course, it’s heartbreaking to see an animal on a chain. But if you have the support of people you work with, you can get through anything. The team we have in Gainesville is incredible. If you have a bad day, everyone understands why.
Read more about how the ASPCA Forensics Science, Behavior Science and Legal Advocacy and Investigations teams work together.