Documenting and Processing Animal Cruelty Scenes
Written by Virginia Maxwell   

ANIMAL CRUELTY IS BOTH A GATEWAY CRIME and an indicator that other crimes may be co-occurring. Those who commit acts of animal cruelty are five times more likely to commit crimes against people. Certain types of animal cruelty—especially dog fighting—are linked to drugs, gun violence, gambling, and trafficking in persons. So entwined are interpersonal violence and animal cruelty that, in many states, animal control personnel cross-report with those agencies responsible for children and families. Animal cruelty is considered a window into the home and a significant part of the pattern of family violence. Thus, identifying the perpetrators of acts of cruelty against animals can bring early intervention.

Early psychiatric studies focused on the link between violent behavior toward animals in childhood and adult criminal behavior. However, this has evolved to include the perpetrator of violence against animals being a victim of childhood abuse or witness to animal cruelty.

While many acts of cruelty to animals point toward criminality and later violent behavior, hoarding is believed to have its roots in psychiatric issues of an individual. This is manifested in a rate of recidivism approaching 100% without mental health evaluations and treatment.

Animal cruelty investigation is challenging, as “animal cruelty” is used as an overarching term for a range of behaviors—from a temporary lapse in the provision of suitable care to the most heinous cases of malicious torture and death. Further, animal law in the United States is a complex mix of levels of protection: town, county, state, and federal, compounded by differing jurisdictional definitions of “animal” and “animal cruelty” (if, indeed, a definition even exists) and the notion that animals are historically and legally considered to be property.

Animal cruelty in some form is now considered to be a felony in all 50 states, though certain types, or classes, of animals enjoy little legal protection. Most animal cruelty laws cover what are considered to be companion animals, but exclude other animals such as farmed animals, wildlife, rodents, and those used for research or entertainment purposes. Thus, investigators must ensure they are aware of the specific definitions and laws in their jurisdictions.

Animal cruelty exists in many forms, both passive and active. Passive cruelty occurs primarily as neglect of animals. This neglect often rises out of ignorance of their needs, but also through good intentions accompanied by lack of resources or inability to provide for the needs of the animal. Passive neglect is the most commonly seen type of animal cruelty, and it can often be rectified through education or some level of assistance to owners.

Active, or intentional cruelty, is manifested in different ways, including intentional neglect, animal fighting, sexual abuse, torture, maiming, or killing of animals.

Dogs dumped in a ditch and partially concealed. The coverings of the animals should be examined for evidence linking the perpetrator to this scene. Also check for microchips in the dogs. Photo: Guardians of Rescue

The CSI Approach to Animal Cruelty
Crime scene investigation makes or breaks most cases, and animal cruelty is no different. The first responders to the majority of animal-related crime scenes are specialized animal control or animal protection officers who often do not have the support and training of a typical law enforcement crime scene unit or detective bureau. Without specialized training, critical documentation may be omitted, or valuable evidence not recognized and collected appropriately. In some cases, such as neglect, good scene documentation alone can be sufficient to support an investigation.

Crafting of search warrants prior to processing an animal cruelty scene may present a challenge. Animals have historically been considered as property in most states. In other words, they enjoy the same legal status as a table.

Once a crime is suspected, the crafting of search warrants prior to processing an animal cruelty scene may present a challenge. Animals have historically been considered as property in most states. In other words, they enjoy the same legal status as a table. They cannot simply be seized without a valid warrant or the owner’s permission. With rapid evolution of animal law in response to societal concerns, states may differ in their legal treatment of animal victims. In addition, all animals on a property—victim or otherwise—must be considered prior to executing a search warrant, and plans for the removal of these animals by qualified personnel must be in place. Exigent circumstances may apply in some, but not all, cases.

These photos show the exhumation of graves containing dogs wrapped in garbage bags. The animals should be carefully examined for trace evidence, wounds, and cause of death. The bags are sources of DNA and fingerprints; they could also be linked to a roll of bags in the suspect’s possession. Photos: Guardians of Rescue

Photo and Video Documentation
Thorough documentation is vital to any crime scene, but in animal cruelty cases it is often poorly executed. Lack of adequate documentation is a major reason that animal cruelty investigations fail. Thorough documentation is important for investigative purposes, but forensic veterinarians also examine all forms of documentation to render opinions regarding the treatment of animal victims and the timeframe over which this may have occurred.

The usual principles of photographic documentation apply, including distance, medium-range, and close-up photos, both before and after placing scales and markers. Photographs of animals should be taken from all sides and above, as well as the stomach if wounds are present. Notes regarding temperature and smells, such as ammonia, are important when neglect is suspected. Once animals are removed from poor living environments, treated, and given access to food and water, they will soon look dramatically different. By taking time to carefully document the living conditions and the location of food or water in relation to the animals, as well as the condition of the food or water, it can be clearly seen whether the animals were neglected at the time of seizure. Questions are readily answered regarding the accessibility of food and water containers, whether they are empty, whether the food or water are fresh, whether animals are living in their own excrement, or whether the animal appear malnourished. Such documentation is simple but, without it, an investigation may collapse. In more severe neglect cases, such as hoarding, there may be many animals present, and not only are the living conditions important but the presence of dead and dying animals must also be recorded.

A dog crate dumped in woodland contains skeletal remains of an animal that had been wrapped with duct tape. The locking mechanism of the crate and the zip ties can be examined for DNA and other evidence left by the individual who placed the animal in the crate. Photo: Virginia Maxwell

Blood spatter at the scene should be photographed with rulers to indicate its precise position. The shape of stains provides both the directionality of the blood drops and whether they are of high, medium, or low velocity. Blood trails may show movement of victims and drag marks may also be seen. Caution should be exercised when interpreting spatter patterns, as injured animals may shake or drag themselves to hide, and not all species bleed from skin wounds in the same way.

Animals cannot give a statement. They cannot tell you if they are in pain, if they are hungry and who has mistreated them. But these issues and more can be answered through the extensive use of video documentation.

Animals cannot give a statement. They cannot tell you if they are in pain, if they are hungry and who has mistreated them. But these issues and more can be answered through the extensive use of video documentation. Do they cry out when touched? Do they walk with a normal gait? How do they react to specific individuals, or what do they do when given food and water?

With widespread occurrence of cameras in our society, including cell phones and home security cameras, video of the animals often exists over an extended period of time showing a progression of abuse or maltreatment, even if the actual act is not caught.

It is of utmost importance that investigators remember that once removed from its abuser and the environment in which the abuse occurred, the animal’s physical injuries start to heal, and a neglected animal provided with food and water will soon improve in body condition. Thus, at the time of trial, an animal may bear little resemblance to the malnourished or abused animal that was seized. Further, a forensic veterinarian given video of the animal’s living conditions, its appearance, and its behavior can subsequently render an opinion regarding the maltreatment of the victim. Veterinary assessment of animal behavior, from videos or from the animal itself, is important in animal sexual assault cases.

Collecting Physical Evidence
When an animal dies under suspicious circumstances, a forensic necropsy should occur. The coat and thick, pigmented skin of many animals can conceal bruising and lacerations from blunt force injuries and other trauma, such as stab wounds, that are revealed by shaving the coat and reflecting the skin. Blunt force trauma can lead to internal bleeding, only revealed at necropsy. The coat can also prevent signs of trauma, such as abrasions, from being left on the skin, while internal injuries may tell the story of what occurred.

Thorough documentation of all non-accidental injuries provides investigative leads regarding the potential causes of injury and the implements used. Critically, necropsy and x-rays can reveal past injuries and wounds in various stages of healing, potentially providing an extensive history of abusive treatment rather than a single impulsive act. Wound patterns may indicate the type of weapon used—for example, the type of knife, or the sort of ligature used when the animal was asphyxiated. Bite-wound patterns can indicate organized fighting, a bait animal, predation, or a spontaneous fight between two animals. When sexual assault is indicated, internal injuries along with penetrating objects lodged in the animal may be revealed. Other sources of non-accidental injury requiring interpretation include shootings, drownings, dragging by motor vehicle, and burns—both chemical and thermal. Blood and urine samples may be analyzed to provide physiological evidence of neglect, reveal drugs commonly used in dogfighting, and identify sedatives used in cases of sexual assault. Stomach contents are valuable to verify neglect and assist in determination of time of death.

Physical evidence can be recovered from the scene, the animal, forensic necropsy, and from the suspect and their environment. In most cases, investigators should consider physical evidence similar to that seized and examined in crimes against people. Biological evidence may be used to both confirm a crime has occurred—such as semen in the vaginal vault—and to link an individual and an animal. The value of biological evidence may be limited by whether or not the animal is owned by the suspect, but biological evidence should not be dismissed, as its location may be paramount. For example, DNA may be recovered from duct tape found on the animal or on a container in which the animal was dumped, from the animal’s blood on a screwdriver, or from ligatures recovered from a hanging animal. In cases of sexual assault, a sexual assault kit can be used to collect evidence from the animal victim of the crime, though differences in anatomy mean veterinary assistance is essential. When blood spatter is important, it must be linked to the victim. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there are only a few laboratories that examine and compare non-human DNA.

Some bones and duct tape found inside the dog crate (previous image). The bones can be examined for any toolmarks that might indicate injuries or old, healing injuries, as well as toolmarks from weapons. The duct tape can be examined for trace evidence, fingerprints, and DNA. Photo: Virginia Maxwell

Acts of animal cruelty often require close contact between the victim and suspect, so trace evidence should be considered. The coat of an animal retains trace materials well. The claws of animals may retain trace materials and biological evidence, as an animal will struggle and attempt to escape. Trace evidence to consider includes fibers, hairs, paint, pollen, soil, tapes, and cordage. In shootings, bullets may be recovered, and trajectory of the shot can be determined during necropsy. Gunshot residue detected on the coat of the animal allows some estimation of the general range of the shot. Toolmarks in bone can be revealed at necropsy and linked to objects in the suspect’s possession, including knives or axes. While latent prints cannot be recovered from the coat of an animal, items such as duct tape or garbage bags found with the animals may be good sources of fingerprints—although location and orientation may be critical for association with the criminal act. Footwear and tire impressions can be recovered from dump sites. Written records of transactions and training records are important when investigating animal fighting. Animal purchase records are common evidence in hoarding. Entomology evidence can be used for time-of-death determination, but maggots can also be analyzed for DNA evidence and toxicology.

Electronic evidence is important in many crimes against animals. Organized animal fighting co-occurs with gambling, drug distribution, and firearms crimes. Detailed electronic records of training, breeding, and sales are common, along with videos of training and fights. Social media posts and online groups also provide valuable information. Perpetrators of sexual assaults typically have illegal pornography on their devices, including images and videos of themselves engaging in the act. Other crimes against animals, such as torture and killing, are increasingly filmed for distribution to friends or social media. Finally, microchips may be located in the bodies of animals, providing a means for identification.

The Challenges of Hoarding and Animal Fighting
In the broad spectrum of animal cruelty, two types are particularly challenging: hoarding and animal fighting. Animal fighting brings myriad evidence, ranging from wound patterns to physical evidence to electronic evidence. While animals reared for fighting receive good care, bait animals are used for training and are discarded with terrible injuries. Fighting animals are bred for “gameness”—to fight to the death or until restrained, regardless of the condition of their opponent or whether they see typical submissive behavior. Fighting dogs receive supplements, steroids, and other substances to enhance their training and performance, and may receive narcotics as they recover from fights. Dogs who lose fights may be brutally killed and discarded. Paraphernalia consistent with a fighting operation includes “rape stands” for breeding, along with scales, treadmills, and other items used for training purposes. DNA evidence may be used to link animals to fighting pens and to particular breeding lines.

Hoarding, a large-scale case of severe neglect, presents probably the biggest and most unique challenge to an investigator unfamiliar with animal cruelty cases. Scenes can range from confined scenes (such as a camper) to extensive scenes, involving multiple structures. Responders must note that zoonotic parasites or disease and toxic levels of ammonia may be present and should take precautions accordingly. Clean fabric can be used to capture odors and sealed in clean metal cans. With severe neglect, visible injuries and disease are usually present. Cannibalism among the animals is not uncommon. Medical supplies should be documented, along with the amount remaining in the prescription, and for which animal they were actually prescribed. Veterinary records should be seized along with records of animal purchases.

Hoarding cases require a large, multi-disciplinary response, as many live animals must be triaged, treated, and removed, with the more seriously injured or sick animals requiring immediate treatment. If it is suspected that there are dead animals on the property, then these must be located and, if buried, exhumed for determination of injuries and cause of death. These large-scale responses must be carefully coordinated and planned prior to inception of scene processing. Further, financial resources of the agency are a major issue when a large-scale case is underway. Costs may include transportation from the scene, ongoing veterinary care, and boarding of animals for the duration of the investigation and subsequent court proceedings. Animal rescue organizations, such as Guardians of Rescue, are important allies, providing much-needed assistance to law enforcement agencies.

In summary, the investigative response to crimes with animal victims has both similarities and differences to crimes against people. Physical evidence plays the same vital role. However, the differences in animals and human cases must be fully understood to avoid loss of valuable evidence through an ill-conceived search warrant or lack of appropriate documentation of both the scene and the victim.

The link between animal cruelty and criminality is well-known. Through increased awareness of animal crime scene processing and collection of physical evidence— coupled with a coordinated response from first responders, forensic scientists and forensic veterinarians—we can ensure early intervention in criminal behavior and suitable punishment for those who commit criminal acts against animals.

About the Author

Virginia Maxwell is an Associate Professor of Forensic Science and Assistant Dean of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. She has over 27 years of forensic experience, 15 of which were as a trace evidence examiner in the State of Connecticut Forensic Laboratory. A lifelong animal lover, she now specializes in the application of forensic science to the investigation of animal cruelty. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry from Liverpool University and a DPhil in Physical Chemistry from Oxford University.

This article appeared in the March-April 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that issue here.

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