Use of animal forensics on the rise

  1. Use of animal forensics on the rise

    By KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press Writer Mon May 28, 5:10 PM ET

    RICHMOND, Va. - The killer had left his mark all over the crime scene. Grayish-tan hairs lay strewn on the ground below the old willow tree on Marylin Christian's Loudoun County farm, inches away from where her beloved cat Cody was found dead.
    Cody's distraught owner vowed to seek justice. But when she suggested that animal control officers collect saliva from a neighbor's dog, Lucky, to see if it genetically matched hair found in Cody's mouth and claws, she was met with bewilderment.
    "They kind of acted like, 'Well, you've been watching a little too much 'CSI,'" Christian recalled with a laugh.
    Perhaps. But Christian's idea wasn't that far-fetched. Law enforcement officials increasingly are relying on traditional forensic methods to solve crimes where an animal is the victim, perpetrator or witness.
    "There's some real serious cases where animal DNA played a role in helping solve the case," said Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, a DNA expert who has asked investigators to collect DNA samples from murder suspects' pets at crime scenes. "I believe that it will be used more and more."
    Christian eventually paid $500 for the evidence to be tested at the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of California at Davis, which has the largest database of domesticated-animal DNA in the country. The result? A one in 67 million chance the hair belonged to anyone other than Lucky.
    "Usually, people come to us because it's a very emotional matter," said Beth Wictum, acting director of the lab's forensics division. "They've lost a pet, and for many people, pets are a member of the family and they want to get resolution."
    Wictum's lab handles between 150 and 200 cases a year from all over the world. But scientists there don't just deal with pet-on-pet attacks. They process evidence from cases involving animal attacks on humans, human attacks on animals, and even human crimes against each other in which an animal may yield important clues.
    In one case, the lab used DNA testing to match dog excrement found on the bottom of a murder suspect's shoe to excrement found near the crime scene — a key piece of evidence that helped secure the man's conviction. In another case, a sexual assault victim couldn't pick her attacker out of a lineup — but she remembered her dog had urinated on the man's pickup truck. The dog's DNA matched DNA traces found on the truck's tire and the suspect pleaded guilty.
    ASPCA forensic veterinarian Melinda Merck relies on the same techniques as standard CSIs — ballistics, toxicology, blood spatter analysis — to help solve animal cruelty cases across the country.
    "It's rapidly growing," she said of her specialty. "There is a tremendous interest from the veterinarians and there's a tremendous interest from law enforcement."
    Last year, Merck testified in the Atlanta trial of two teenage brothers who tortured a puppy and left it in an oven to die. Merck was able to prove the puppy was alive when it was tortured and reconstructed in grim detail for a jury the animal's final moments. The brothers were sentenced to a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.
    Even forensic entomologists — who use insects such as maggots to help estimate a victim's time of death — have crossed over into the world of animal-related crimes.
    Forensic entomologist Jason Byrd often is called on to help investigators with wildlife crimes and poaching cases. If a bald eagle is shot at a game reserve, Byrd can examine the maggots on the bird's carcass to help determine its time of death. Investigators then can access the records at the reserve to narrow down who was in the area at the time of the shooting.
    "They're not scared to spend money now to figure out who's been poaching animals," Byrd said. "Now they do true investigation techniques — they throw forensic science at the problem."
    Killing and smuggling protected animals is a global, multibillion dollar enterprise. The National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore. — the only full-service crime lab in the world devoted entirely to crime against wildlife — uses the same techniques as human crime labs to solve wildlife crimes, said deputy lab director Ed Espinoza.
    Scientists there have used DNA tests to determine whether caviar came from endangered sturgeon, and whether bear gallbladders — used in the Asian medicinal trade — came from protected bears. They have examined bald eagles to see if the birds were electrocuted after touching power lines that did not have required protections in place.

    Following the O.J. Simpson trial, expectations and demands on both human and animal crime labs soared, Espinoza said. Since then, the complexity and number of cases the lab handles has steadily increased, and scientists there now handle an average of 700 cases a year.
    "The same judges, the same lawyers, are used to human cases, so they expect the same standards," Espinoza said. "Expectations of the courts has increased of what is a good case."
    With the growing field of animal forensics comes a growing need for training, and colleges are just beginning to take note. This year, Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine began offering a forensic veterinary medicine course, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, said professor Janice Sojka. Sojka said she recognized a need for the course after noticing a recent explosion of interest in the field.
    "With 'CSI' and 'Law & Order,' people kind of know what's out there and what can be done and then there's a growing expectation that you'll do that for your animals," she said. "It's become a lot more respected."
    It has been nearly two years since Christian lost Cody, her feline companion of 13 years. Despite the DNA results, animal control officers refused to declare Lucky a dangerous dog, though Lucky and his owners have since moved away.
    And even though her CSI-style pursuit of justice was expensive and frustrating, Christian has no regrets. The stay-at-home mother of two considers Cody and her other four cats to be her children, too. "I felt like I needed to do it for my family," she said. "The two-legged and the four-legged."