Animal Forensics

How investigators, scientists and lawyers use canine DNA to solve crimes.

By | Posted: April 1, 2010, 8 a.m. EDT

. Forensic science is not just for humans anymore. Today, law-enforcement officials apply forensics to cases involving animals – whether the animal is a victim, perpetrator or witness.

"Many people don’t realize that there is animal DNA,” says Melinda D. Merck, D.V.M., former senior director of veterinary forensics in anti-cruelty for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Merck frequently testifies as a forensic veterinary expert in animal-cruelty cases across the country. These cases involve animal hoarding, puppy mills, dog fighting and animal torture. Evidence collected from these crimes must be analyzed and interpreted by a professional who understands animals and their behavior.

"I’m usually brought in by the prosecutor’s office or by a detective,” Merck says. "I may be sent a case file that includes statements, veterinarian records and photographs to consult on or to serve as an expert witness. I also look at bones and skeletal remains for evidence of cruelty, trauma or dog fighting. Often, I’m brought in to perform a necropsy.” The evidence she finds varies with each case.
Merck also trains veterinary and law-enforcement officials on the use of veterinary forensics in investigating and prosecuting animal-cruelty cases. Her interest in this field evolved from seeing cruelty cases in private practice and from her work with various rescue and animal-control groups.

In 2006, Merck testified in a high-profile puppy-torture case in Atlanta. Two teenage brothers were on trial for torturing a puppy and leaving it in an oven to die. Merck proved that the puppy was still alive when it was tortured. The brothers were sentenced to a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.



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