When investigators in the dog fighting case against NFL player Michael Vick needed a forensic expert on animals, they called Atlanta-based Dr. Melinda C. Merck.
Merck, a forensic veterinarian with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, spent the day at the Kent County SPCA rescue-adoption center in Camden, Delaware last week, sharing the latest animal cruelty crime scene investigation tools and techniques with scores of police, animal enforcement officers, vets and pet advocates.
“Every cruelty case is tough,” Dr. Merck told attendees. “But it’s always gratifying when you get a plea or conviction.”
Getting evidence needed for conviction is more demanding than ever, she said, partly because of what is called “the CSI effect.” Because of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and other TV shows such as the nonfiction “Forensic Files,” jurors expect DNA tests, all details used to estimate time of death and proof of evidence custody, Merck said. If prosecutors lack such science, “they want to know why,” she said.
In animal cases, she said, standard DNA testing may cost about $300, compared with several thousand dollars for human tests. Still, the cost factor mentioned by Merck made Delaware SPCA’s Executive Director John E. Caldwell balk. The nonprofit agency, with shelters in Stanton and Georgetown, successfully investigates and prosecutes hundreds of cases of animal cruelty each year without such expensive techniques, he said.
He likened the situation to the difference between real-life crime labs and those on CSI. “CSI has all the toys and money,” he said, ” … but we don’t have the budget.”
But Merck said that, regardless of budget, animal cruelty investigators can bolster their cases by inexpensive evidence collection and documentation so that information is available, then process samples when DNA or other testing points become pivotal to prosecution.
For example, swabbing for DNA costs nearly nothing, Merck said. Processing one swab solved a killing when Scotland Yard matched dog saliva from a murder scene to a suspect’s pet, she said.
DNA also can aid fight investigations by determining dog ownership, she said. “Many used in dog fighting are stolen,” but can be traced.
Animal forensic investigators also can get DNA from urine — rare for humans — because dogs and cats shed more cells into the discharge than people, she said.
But bruises are hard to find in cats and dogs. “They don’t have a lot of blood supply, so they don’t bruise as easily,” she said, so deeper tissue must be examined.
Fur can hide damage found by tests, she said, showing an X-ray of a cat’s broken bones with a bullet still lodged and shadows of bone-regrowth, indicating an old injury.
By documenting fine details, including pet remains’ temperature, air and flesh temperature, weather conditions, recent rain, time and temperature in transport and later refrigeration, Merck said she has been able to fix cruelty victims’ time of death to as little as two hours.
Owners should get no breaks for saying their pets’ conditions weren’t too bad or they can’t afford care, Merck said, flashing a photo of a post-fight pit bull with crooked, broken legs, gash wounds and a head of scars and deep, fresh cuts.
At the sight, the crowd moaned.
“They can no longer claim ignorance when the dog looks like that,” Merck said. “At some point, that failure to act becomes malice — and that’s a felony in my book.”
Source: Delaware Online