By Katie Marsico
We’ve all seen what happens in television shows like Law and Order and CSI: a body turns-up, the evidence (always gory) is closely inspected, and then the ‘perp’ is arrested for the crime. Justice is nearly always served. But what happens in real life when an animal is killed? These days, increasingly, that same scenario is not too far off.
In the last decade, the number of states passing felony animal-cruelty laws has jumped from a dismal 14 to 43. Gone are the times when animal-cruelty received a slap on the wrist. More and more abusers are seeing jail time for the act, which, many legislators now recognize as a crime that causes depravity in homes and communities. One reason is that more people than ever—including judges, legislators, and officers—have pets and treat them as part of their family. But a huge push has come from the veterinary community, who have, in recent decades, dedicated themselves to plowing the untrodden field of animal forensics.
“The big wall that keeps [animal cruelty] cases from being investigated is the lack of knowledge of what evidence is, and how to prove a case. People begin to shun things they don’t know,” says Dr. Melinda Merck, a Georgia-based veterinarian turned animal forensics expert. “Once prosecutors figure out what the evidence is—what testing can be done, then they’re like ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”
As a former cat-clinic vet in Georgia, Merck was disappointed when cruelty went unreported by other vets. So around 1990 she began to take her practice a step further, and, after reporting an instance of cruelty, she’d follow-up with detectives to help push cases into court. But Merck admits that handling animal-cruelty cases can be difficult. “For prosecutors, it’s like a crime against a child. You have very unreliable witnesses or no witnesses, victims are too young and can’t testify—they’re tough cases to build.”
She threw herself into analyzing animal forensics, an unprecedented undertaking. She took the initiative to study with medical examiners to pick up techniques to discover animals’ unique bruising or blood spray patterns, since there is no formal certification process to work in veterinary forensics or on a crime scene. “It doesn’t stop at examining the animal,” says Merck. “A veterinarian needs to process the crime scene—because there’s no one else.”
If this were TV, Merck would be the archetypal passionate and elegant crime scene investigator. She consults for Gwinnett County, the Fulton County’s DA’s office, and the ASPCA, a full-time employer that allows her to devote her skills to needy cases throughout the country. In some instances she’ll walk detectives through evidence over the phone. In other cases, she testifies as an expert witness in court, which she’s doing for a veterinarian working on a sexual assault case in Indiana. In yet other instances, Merck heads down to the crime scene, assisting in police raids of dog fighting or animal hoarding grounds—where dozens of animals are endangered or deceased.
To help others follow in her footsteps, Merck wrote the book on animal forensics—literally and figuratively. In June 2007, Merck released Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations, which is billed as a practical reference guide for veterinarians, pathologists, and investigators. But a year before that she joined up with Dr. Randall Lockwood and Leslie Sinclair to coauthor—Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty: A Guide for Veterinary and Law Enforcement Professionals (see Book Reviews), perhaps the first comprehensive book on the field. Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty initiatives and legislative services at the ASPCA, spells out the need for this manual: “Veterinary forensics lets veterinarians use both the tools of science and veterinary medicine to be the voice of the victims,” he says.
In the last year, this new breed of forensic specialists like Merck and Lockwood are often in the public eye (Merck was recently interviewed by Terri Gross for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Lockwood has appeared on several news talk shows). In part, this is because the job has an air of glamour, thanks to our undying love of cop shows and heroes. But, Merck and Lockwood have an arsenal of stories that would make any criminal court judge cringe.
With psychology degrees under his belt, Lockwood has studied the mind-set of animal abusers for 20 plus years. His research has been integral in persuading legislators to pass felony laws. “[One study] was the first time we’ve clearly shown the very common pattern where the animals were used as a tool to further victimize the victims of child abuse, “says Lockwood. “The animals would be threatened, injured, or killed as a way of buying the abused children’s silence. We discovered that this had potentially long-range effects on children’s capacity for empathy for others.” He adds: “We had naively assumed that these families would be less likely to [have] pets—it turns out they had a higher rate of pets with a much higher turnover.”
Both Lockwood and Merck claim that hoarding pets—both living and dead, or letting the living die—is common, and often goes undetected. Additionally, Merck says: “There are some [perpetrators] that people think are hoarders, but they’re really serial animal killers; they get sadistic pleasure in killing the animals or watching them starve to death.”
While processing evidence, Merck has come across many factors that differentiate animal crimes from human crimes. “The biggest thing is [that] you have live evidence. Animals are considered evidence of a crime, so the victim is also evidence. You have to process and deal with it differently. In huge cases, you have tons of live evidence.”
Merck and Lockwood’s job is not done. With more legislators turning their attention to animal issues, they see it as a good opportunity to put stable laws and apt punishment in place. Lockwood wants to see legal departments work together. “We need integrated task forces to deal with all these groups,” he says. “People feel like if we give more money for child abuse, we’re going to take away from the system that responds to domestic (animal) violence,” He adds: “We’re dealing with the same perpetrators.” From her experience as a vet, Merck thinks more research is due and, of course, mandatory reporting by all vets is a must. “I also think we’re going to see a trend toward animal court, like family court. We’ll see certain judges gravitate toward these cases,” says Merck. “We’ll see more and more vets doing what I’m doing.”
Animal Defense League
Chicago Bar Association Animal Law
CPD Animal Crimes Team
DAWG Court Advocacy Program
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