Applying Criminalistics to Crimes Against Critters
Written by Paul R. Laska   

ASPCA Mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation Unit Veterinary Sciences Program Maples Center for Forensic Medicine Paul Laska dog skull


See this article in its original format in the Digital Edition!

IT SEEMS THAT SO OFTEN, the deeper consequences of crimes against animals—both domestic and agricultural—are overlooked. Blood sports such as dogfighting and cockfighting are often portals to organized crime. Animal hoarding is often a façade for significant emotional issues. Cattle rustling is theft that increases the cost of putting meat on consumers’ tables. Puppy mills pump out sick and genetically damaged pets, defrauding people looking for a healthy pet. The mistreatment, torture, or killing of animals has often been associated with sociopaths who eventually graduate to serial murders.

Unfortunately, the criminal justice community has been slow to implement an appropriate investigative support system for these cases. This is a niche field, where knowledgeable forensic support is often unavailable.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has conducted and supported investigation of crimes against animals for quite some time. Its Field Investigations and Response (FIR) Team, regionally situated nationwide, provides support to local agencies that conduct such cases. Through its experience, the ASPCA recognized that animal-specific forensic support was needed. Few veterinarians are interested in forensic investigation; fewer still have any training in forensic skills. The ASPCA also recognized that—especially in rural, agricultural areas—local law enforcement agencies were often too small to maintain trained, professional crime-scene investigative resources. Seeing a need, they reached out for help from the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida.

The Maples Center is a joint program of the University of Florida Colleges of Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, and Liberal Arts and Sciences. A well-known and respected component is the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory that provides academic and field forensic anthropology services. The Maples Center is also the home to the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System (FEMORS), a Florida Department of Health program consisting of almost 200 forensic and mortuary professionals providing support to the state’s medical examiner system. Administratively located in the College of Medicine’s Department of Pathology, the Maples Center provides a nexus for a wide array of forensic professionals to interface.

The multidisciplinary mission of the Maples Center made it the ideal place to establish the ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program. Led by forensic entomologist Dr. Jason Byrd, associate director of the Maples Center and Chief of Logistics for FEMORS, one of the program’s first moves was to create a Mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) Unit.

Mobile Animal CSI

The first vehicle utilized by the Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program was a specialty vehicle built by La Boit, Inc. Specialty Vehicles. It utilizes a Ford E-450 with a dual rear-wheel chassis mounting a custom response body. Initially, the front of the vehicle was designed as a mobile crime scene unit. Byrd explained that they quickly realized the greater need was for animal medical services. As a result, the rear section was transformed into a mobile veterinary surgical suite that included digital x-ray, while the front housed a necropsy section built on top of the counters, with this area capable of functioning as a second medical suite. A wide variety of crime-scene and criminalistics supplies continue to be maintained on board.

An innovative step was to cover all surfaces with write-on/wipe-off white-board material. This achieved numerous benefits. First, it makes for a very bright workstation. Second, it makes cleanup and decontamination very simple. Finally, it provides professionals—often gloved-up conducting surgeries or necropsies—easy access to writing surfaces to make notes as they work. On many responses, commented Byrd, the walls of the entire unit are covered with notes by completion of the operation. The notes are then photographed for documentation and wiped down during cleanup to prepare for the next call.

The success of this first mobile unit resulted in the ASPCA acquiring a second, upgraded unit. This unit, maintained at the ASPCA’s office in Long Island City, New York, is based on a Freightliner diesel-powered chassis. Somewhat larger than the Gainesville unit, its primary jurisdiction is the Northeast and Midwest, while Gainesville’s unit primarily services the South.

The big trucks provide versatile field laboratory and clinic capabilities for forensic work involving animals. However, they do have shortcomings. Many scenes are located in pastures, rural homesteads, or otherwise away from paved or easily accessed roads. Also, the large vehicles are fuel guzzlers—suitable for long-distance, long-term response, but limiting when used for quick jaunts between scenes and local agencies. A longtime partner of the ASPCA, Subaru of America, came to the rescue donating a more fuel-efficient 2010 Subaru Outback station wagon with all-wheel drive. The Outback was distinctively marked and equipped with a light bar for identification and safety on scenes. A portable refrigerator rides in the cargo area permitting transport of remains from remote scenes to the animal CSI units, or fast, economical transport of specimens to laboratories. The all-wheel-drive Outback has proven to be an able and lithe partner to the animal CSI trucks.

Equipment is only part of a successful investigation, of course. Both the ASPCA and Maples Center provide qualified staff. The ASPCA, through its FIR Team, has regionally located directors who work with local agencies to investigate animal-cruelty cases. Further, the FIR Team has its own medical director who oversees shelter medicine on cruelty cases and supports the New York-based animal CSI unit.

The Maples Center, a leading forensic support and research center, is able to provide services of forensic veterinarians and veterinary technicians, forensic anthropologists and osteologists, forensic odontologists, and an experienced forensic technician.

Byrd emphasized that the Mobile Animal CSI Unit exists to support animal care and law enforcement. It does not self-dispatch; instead, it only responds to requests from the law- enforcement community. It is a service of the ASPCA, at no expense to local authorities. To be successful, it needs law enforcement to be more aware of its existence, services, and capabilities—and it needs law enforcement to reach out for those services.

Educating Professionals

To increase awareness in the law- enforcement community of the ASPCA’s services, the outreach and partnership does not stop with field support. Several programs are sponsored to provide outreach education and networking.

First, the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association (IVFSA) was founded to:

  • Provide forensic science education among all concerned with criminal issues related to animals;
  • Aid in providing forensic science to criminal and civil cases related to animals;
  • Inform the law enforcement and legal community of the applications of science to these cases;
  • Advance and foster forensic veterinary sciences; and
  • Promote the health, welfare, and safety of animals through the advancement of forensic science and criminalistics.

Second, the Maples Center and its partners sponsor various outreach training for the veterinary, criminalistics, law enforcement, and legal communities on a variety of subjects that are related to animal forensics and investigations. These programs are conducted in Gainesville, Florida, at the main campus of the University of Florida, as well as at other sites in Florida.

Most innovative is the offering of a distance-learning program featuring a series of courses that can be applied to a graduate certificate in Veterinary Forensic Science. The program is aimed at all practitioners in the veterinary, law enforcement, criminalistics, and legal communities, and aims to upgrade knowledge and capabilities as they apply to veterinary forensics. The online, five-course program promises to significantly increase both the capabilities of providers as well as the overall respect for this field.

Cruelty, Theft, Abuse…Crime

The services of the FIR Team could be of great value to the investigative and law-enforcement community. Animal fighting is a common offense where either birds or dogs are bred and trained to fight. Dog fighters often employ stolen pets as training dummies to teach their animals to kill. Not only do these animal blood sports involve abuse, cruelty, and theft, but they are also often portals to organized crime, gang activity, and drug operations in the community.

Puppy mills are a serious problem. Here, greed-driven breeders churn out constant production of puppies to feed the needs of the pet-shop industry. Breeding canine bitches are usually maltreated, ill socialized, and often subjected to inbreeding. The puppies suffer from the effects of inbreeding, or carry illnesses from poor treatment. Dogs who should be bringing joy to families often become expensive med-ical matters, or bear serious behavioral and socialization problems.

The relationship between juvenile animal abuse and violence—especially leading to offenses such as arson, sexual assault, and serial murder—has long been noted. Early intervention by thorough investigation of animal torture and deaths can prevent later acts. The services of the ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program may help in several ways:

  1. determine the nature of inexplicable animal deaths;
  2. provide significant investigative leads based on evidence collected; and
  3. provide testimony that could stop a budding sociopath’s career in its tracks, to the betterment of other pets and society.

Byrd explained that the current leading cause for response is animal hoarding. Most incidents of animal hoarding involve people who claim to be rescuing unwanted or abused animals. Unfortunately, hoarding usually results in a tendency for over-populated and unhygienic living areas, impoverished conditions leading to malnutrition issues, and a generally unhealthy existence for the animals, the individual living there, and the neighborhood.

Case Study

Sergeant Ken Ault is the supervisor of Agricultural and Environmental Investigations at the Martin County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office. Several years ago, a number of heifers were found on several occasions at two neighboring cattle ranches, each of them slaughtered in a similar way. Early discussion in the community included suspicion of black helicopters, satanic cults, UFOs, and chupacabra—the “goat suckers” of Caribbean and Latin American lore.

Ault recounted how, upon notifying the Maples Center of the incident, he did not expect any help. He thought, “Who would care about a few cattle in Martin County?” To his surprise, Byrd and a team from the ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program arrived. The team proceeded to conduct examinations of the available scenes and carcasses, documenting and collecting specimens for lab examination.

The forensic examinations were able to establish that the deaths were not the result of criminal or supernatural activity. Instead, they were due to predator activity, either coyote or mountain lion. At that time, coyotes were very recent arrivals in this part of Florida, not encountered often, while the Florida subspecies of the mountain lion is critically endangered. Both have scalpel-sharp incisors used to dissect their meals. Each is attracted to the soft, succulent meat found in the genital regions. Each species, if a lone animal, will only eat to satisfy its needs and then travel on.

Without the findings and knowledge of the team, the investigation would have cost tens if not hundreds of additional hours of law enforcement follow-up and surveillance, and then would have eventually been set aside, leaving questions unanswered for the victims and community.

The ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program at the Maples Center for Forensic Science at the University of Florida presents law enforcement agencies in the United States with a tremendous resource. Confronted by crimes against animals, the typical agency lacks the expertise to forensically analyze evidence in such cases. Few veterinarians care to be involved in conducting forensic necropsies, and fewer still have the appropriate forensic training and skills needed. Through this program, the University of Florida and the ASPCA have established services that significantly aid in investigations involving animals. They also work to train and educate the various professionals involved in order to improve their knowledge and capabilities—thus significantly upgrading the quality of investigations.

For More Information

William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)

About the Author

Paul R. Laska retired after a 29-year career in law enforcement primarily in ballistics and bomb disposal. He continues to serve in training, consulting, and writing. He may be contacted via his website:

< Prev   Next >

Interview with an Expert

One of the more specialized areas of crime-scene investigation has to do with searching for evidence of arson. To get some background in this area, we spoke with an individual who has had more than 46 years in fire service, 24 of which have focused specifically on fire/arson investigation.