Veterinary Forensics Conference, Day 1

FANTASTIC!! So many great presentations…

Dr. Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of the toxicology program at University of Florida spoke on consulting the media about high-profile cases. He has consulted on some of the most well-publicized cases of the last few years, including the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anna Nicole Smith, and Heath Ledger. It was fun to hear him describe some of his embarrassing on-camera blunders, and it was interesting to learn his tips for knowing when to say what to whom. His best advice: take advantage of a common question that is often asked at the end of press interviews, which is, “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” He told us to use that to our advantage to promote programs our organizations may have, or to correct something we may have said previously that we wanted to clear up. He also said we should NOT speak on matters that we are unfamiliar with or on cases in which we we are personally involved in the litigation. Very informative.

Diane Balkin, an attorney in Colorado who is an expert in handling animal cases discussed issues that often arise in hoarding or puppy mill cases. She stressed the need for proper documentation at all times – you can never take too many pictures! Full body photos of EVERY SINGLE ANIMAL should be taken with placards indicating the animal’s assigned number. Take photos of the overall scene, and sketch the layout so that you can identify which animal came from which cage. Save the cages! Save the food bowls! Everything is evidence! Take pictures of the live animals at the time of confiscation and then later, after treatment. Investigators who were at the scene should meet with the prosecutor to plan the case. Know your state’s laws – does the state where this occurred have cruelty statutes that apply to ANY animal or is livestock excluded? Each animal should have its own charges accompanied by proper documentation – do not lump the cruelty charges for four or five animals together as that leaves more of a chance for a successful appeal; in her words, “Each animal (in the case) should be specifically identified, so if treatment (act or omission) of an individual animal results in a provable violation then a charge should be filed for that animal”. And never forget that although mental illness often accompanies these types of crimes, it does not prohibit the person from being held accountable. You do not have to prove motive, only accountability. Above all, she said, NEVER GIVE UP! You can always make something from what seems like nothing. And did you know that there is almost a 100% recidivism rate for the defendants in hoarding cases??

Dr. Robert Reisman, a veterinarian with the ASPCA, spoke about blunt force trauma and showed some of his interesting cases. He has studied literature that corroborated some of his own findings: rib fractures are not commonly seen in animals involved in motor vehicle accidents – something I would never have guessed – most of the fractures occur in the appendicular skeleton. For other types of cases, do not assume that just because there is no sign of trauma on the external surface of the animal, even after shaving, that there is no internal damage. Always shave the animal. Always take radiographs, even in cases of suspected neglect or starvation as abuse frequently accompanies these, and note any callused bone that would indicate past trauma (bone fracture) that had healed – this could demonstrate chronic abuse. Reflect the skin to check for hemorrhage. Check for a severed frenulum (the strip of skin connecting the upper lip to the gum), an indicator of abuse often seen in child abuse cases. Check for broken teeth or mouth bleeding. The number of external lesions can determine the minimum number of blunt force impacts. If there are injuries to multiple areas of the body or to recessed parts of the body that would not typically sustain damage in the case of accidental injury, suspect abuse; for example, if an animal has hemorrhages in its groin area, this would not typically be seen in an accidental fall. Also, consider the explanation provided by the animal’s owner and assess whether it fits with the findings; for example, take into consideration the force involved in blunt force trauma… would the mass or weight of a tiny terrier merit massive trauma that results in death from a fall down the stairs?  Unlikely. Also, consider finding an engineer or physicist that could determine how much force was required to cause the animal’s injury.

Dr. Jason Byrd, a very reputable forensic entomologist and founding member of IVFSA, spoke on the latest happenings within this professional group, and the state of affairs of the online certificate program in veterinary forensics offered through the University of Florida, in conjunction with the ASPCA and the Maples Center. To sum it up, things are progressing well! Oh, and “like” them on Facebook. http://maples-center.ufl.edu, http://forensics.med.ufl.edu.

Good advice on the pathology front came from Dr. Beverly McEwen: case investigators should share case background with the pathologist, including crime scene information, when the animal was last seen alive, the time of day, location/position of the body, whether rigor was present, evidence of insect predation or scavenging on the premises and any possible exposure to hazards or toxins; this knowledge can greatly benefit their assessment of the animal. Also, make sure that the pathology or diagnostic lab to whom you are sending your samples has an SOP in place for handling legal cases, or ask the pathologist to document everything with photos, measurements, etc. Once again, it was stressed that a lack of external or cutaneous injury does not rule out internal trauma; shave and skin deceased victims. Take radiographs

I could go on (and on and on) but this has already become a ridiculously long post. I will try to shorten my summaries from now on, as I haven’t even finished with day one’s speakers!

If you find any of this interesting, please check out IVFSA.org and come to any of their great training programs, and of course to next year’s conference!

Kiteboarder on the beach in Miami!

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