March 6, 2017

What Is Veterinary Forensic Science? Special Q&A with Dr. Rachel Touroo

Forensics Q&A

The ASPCA is well-known for raiding dog fighting compounds, puppy mills and other sites of animal abuse, bringing animal victims to safety and ensuring they find loving homes. But often, that’s only half the story. The other half happens after the rescue—in the lab and in the courtroom, where our incredible veterinary forensics team works to collect and analyze evidence that law enforcement may use to clinch convictions. To shine a light on this important work, we spoke with Dr. Rachel Touroo, Director of Veterinary Forensics at the ASPCA, about the critical role veterinary forensic science plays in obtaining justice for victims of animal cruelty.

What is your job as a Forensic Veterinarian?

A Forensic Veterinarian’s job is to identify, collect and assess evidence from animals and their environment.  I use veterinary medical knowledge to put together the pieces of a puzzle to try to answer the questions asked of me by law enforcement and the courts in an unbiased and objective manner. I often act as a “teacher” to clearly convey the evidence which falls into my realm of expertise, based in science and fact, to assist the judge and/or jury in understanding the evidence at hand, in essence, act as an advocate for the truth.

What is your typical day like?

It’s rare for any two days to be alike in my line of work. One day I could be at a crime scene examining live roosters allegedly used in organized fighting. The next day I could be in the lab at the University of Florida performing a necropsy (animal autopsy) on a cat with blunt or sharp force trauma to determine if the injury was intentional or accidental. Frequently, I can also be found in my office drafting a forensic veterinary statement of my findings from the latest case, or in a classroom teaching third-year veterinary students how to look for signs of intentional cruelty. I’m also called upon to testify as an expert witness in cases across the country.

Dr. Touroo at a cockfighting case in Queens, New York.
Dr. Touroo at a cockfighting case in Queens, New York.

Why did you get involved with this work?

My background in animal welfare ultimately catapulted me into the world of veterinary forensic sciences.  After being out in private practice, I found myself wanting to get back into animal welfare, which I had concentrated on during my undergraduate career at Michigan State University.   The Commonwealth of Virginia had just created a position, advertised as an animal welfare position, for a veterinarian to specifically address puppy mills and animal fighting in the state due to recent undercover puppy mill investigations and a highly publicized dog fighting case.  I had no idea what veterinary forensic sciences was when I accepted the position, but I quickly found myself immersed in the discipline.    

Why is your work important for the welfare of animals?

This work is important for the welfare of animals because abuse compromises an animal’s health and causes a deviation from a “state of comfort.”  In most states, animal cruelty laws refer to terms such as pain, suffering, and distress. A trained forensic veterinarian should have a clear understanding of pain physiology/pathophysiology and may be able to determine if an animal is experiencing pain or a deviation from a state of comfort as evidence of abuse.  This expertise can help support or refute a criminal case against a potential animal abuser. It’s also a fact that many people who abuse animals also abuse women, children and the elderly. Addressing the violence against an animal can often help stop or prevent further violence against people.  So not only is this work pivotal to animal welfare, but it also impacts the welfare of many humans as well.

The Forensics team takes measurements at a crime scene.
The Forensics team takes measurements at a crime scene.

How is the ASPCA advancing the field of Veterinary Forensic Sciences?

This is a novel, growing field with a need for education, training and research to help it evolve. Currently, the ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program at the University of Florida is the only degree-granting program in the U.S. that offers a comprehensive curriculum and dedicated research in this field. The ASPCA teams based at the University of Florida and in New York are also producing some of the newest research in this field and traveling across the country to conduct trainings for law enforcement, veterinarians, animal control and others. This May in New York City we’re also sponsoring the 10th Annual Veterinary Forensic Sciences Conference hosted by the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association. The event will gather experts in veterinary medicine, law enforcement, criminal prosecution, forensic science, animal welfare and human social services to explore multidisciplinary approaches to save more victims of animal cruelty and ensure successful investigations and prosecutions.

Is there one case or animal that sticks with you?

I will never forget the face of a dog from one of the first dogfighting investigations on which I assisted law enforcement.  This older female, tethered on a heavy chain in isolation, was missing a portion of her lips which disfigured her face.  This dog opened my eyes to the brutality of this illegal, organized and intentional form of animal abuse.  I often think about this dog, and she serves to remind me why I work to further the field of veterinary forensic sciences.  

Your work may seem sad to many. How do you stay positive? 

While I love what I do, it is disheartening to know this job is necessary. I choose to focus on the impact we have and the positive outcomes. It’s incredibly uplifting to see an animal rescued from abuse and neglect find a loving home. If I had my way, I would put myself out of work, but until that time comes, I’m proud to be a voice for these victims.

Interested in learning more about veterinary forensic sciences? Register for the 10th Annual Veterinary Forensic Sciences Conference May 16-18 in New York City.