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Veterinary Forensics
Digging up the Evidence in Animal Abuse Cases. Much like children, animals are a constituency that’s really voiceless, and so it's everybody’s responsibility to intervene
April 17, 2005

Dr. Annette Rauch ,V86, MS01, became interested in the field of veterinary forensics when she returned to Tufts in 1999 to obtain a masters degree in animals and public policy. She now specializes in animal forensics at Tufts’ Center for Animals and Public Policy and teaches classes on animal legislation, policies affecting farm animals in the US, and companion animal issues with a focus on the special needs of shelter animals.

What is veterinary forensics?

The word “forensic” means “for the courts.” Veterinary forensics is the collection of data from an animal that can be used for court cases involving animal abuse, neglect, or death under uncertain circumstances, and there is concern that human interaction with the animal caused the injury or death. For cases that violate state anti-cruelty laws, humane investigators and veterinarians need to collect data and evidence on what happened to the animal and how it likely got into the condition that it was in at the time it was found.

How is Tufts involved in these cases?

We collaborate with humane investigators who work at the MSPCA and Animal Rescue League of Boston because they usually are the first individuals called to investigate. If it looks like a case involving mistreatment or neglect of an animal, a veterinarian is needed to evaluate the animal.

Is this a newly developing field?

Yes, we’re just beginning to develop protocols for how to approach specific kinds of cases: an animal that has drowned, been asphyxiated, had blunt trauma. There are no specialty certifications for this type of work. There are groups of people around the US who work either with humane investigators or with large animal shelters and have investigative offices. But veterinarians are the only people who are trained to examine animals and collect physical evidence that will stand up in court. Humane investigators are the experts at collecting evidence from the home where the animal was found. Such investigators and veterinarians are laying the groundwork and resources so when people see a suspicious case, they have somewhere to go – to read some literature, talk to a colleague, or get support on how to intervene.

Is the field of veterinary forensics growing in demand?

Many states have added higher-level penalties for violating anti-cruelty laws. They used to be misdemeanors that were no worse than a parking ticket. Now many are felony-level offenses and carry significant fines and long-term prison sentences. But in order to convict someone of a felony, you need good evidence that will stand up to the scrutiny of the court. And you should have good evidence, because we don’t want to put people in prison for five years on a trumped-up charge. Veterinarians are the only animal care professionals trained in how to do a physical exam, differentiate between what’s normal and not normal, and put together clues of whether they were naturally obtained injuries. Veterinarians are also uniquely qualified to assess the degree of animal suffering, which is an important factor for the court to consider. No other healthcare professionals can bring that data to the court in a systematic way.

What constitutes animal neglect and abuse?

It’s an area somewhat open to interpretation. Anti-cruelty laws in all 50 states make it against the law to neglect or abuse an animal, and they list some specific examples. Most were written in the 1800s when we primarily had farm animals, so they talk about overdriving your cattle and overloading the wagon. Their agricultural references aren’t terribly pertinent to life today. Many of the original cruelty laws weren’t passed because people cared about animal cruelty but because immoral and violent behavior toward animals led to violent behavior toward humans. Neglect is the failure to provide an animal with adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care. Abuse is a variety of different things: for example, deliberate dog or cock fighting, physically abusing an animal, animal hoarding. Occasionally cruelty cases involve farm animals where the farmer doesn’t adhere to standard farming practice – for example, they run out of money and stop feeding their beef cattle, which are literally starving to death. One case involved a man who beat his cow with a pitchfork.

How do you know when an animal has been abused?

It’s not always clear-cut, and that’s why we use our pathologists here at Tufts. We perform a very careful post-mortem exam where we look for injuries, bruising, trauma to the internal organs. We look at the retina of the eye for bleeding. We don’t always see things on the top layer of skin because dogs and cats are protected by their fur, so we examine the inside layer of skin. We generally radiograph deceased animals for evidence of newly broken bones, healed fractures that would indicate trauma over a period of time, foreign objects or gunshot wounds that oftentimes leave behind little fragments of metal as the bullet passes through the animals. If we think the animal was poisoned, we usually save stomach contents and have them analyzed. What we look for is colored by the history we get because it oftentimes leads us down one path over another.

Why did you decide to specialize in animal forensics?

In our overburdened court system, oftentimes animal-related cases aren’t given the attention they deserve. There’s a documented link between violent behavior to humans and violent behavior to animals. Almost all the high-profile serial killers – it may indeed be every single one of them – had a history of horrendous animal cruelty while they were adolescents. In light of this clear link, it’s important to intervene, not just on behalf of this particular animal, but on behalf of future pets a family will get and all humans who will be in contact with the abuser. Much like children, animals are a constituency that’s really voiceless, and so it’s everybody’s responsibility to intervene when they see a child or animal in a jeopardized or compromised situation. If you suspect animal abuse or neglect, call the law enforcement division at the MSPCA and the Animal Rescue League of Boston, and have the situation investigated.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2005 Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.