Category Archives: DNA

Trafficking Jam

Tons of confiscated illegal ivory displayed in February 2014 in Paris. Officials in France crushed the contraband, worth an estimated $1.4 million. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

This is a great article on wildlife forensics that Weather.com put together. They interviewed me several times (it’s amazing how all of the talking gets whittled down) and the author found me through this blog! This is a huge article with beautiful pictures and quotes by many of the same people I am always “bumping into” (more on this later) and I am really excited about it. Just shows how small this field really is. But the author, Michele Berger, really dove headfirst into the issues and doesn’t shy away from any of the hard facts. Thanks, Michele, for the fantastic article and for including me.

http://stories.weather.com/animalforensics

Veterinary Forensics Conference, Day 3

Third and last day of the conference. It’s bittersweet at the end of these events. I’m sad to leave a community of colleagues all passionate about the same things, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it and happy that I leave with a brain full of information and new insights. When I’m faced with professional adversity I will try to keep the memories of the good feelings I had at the conference with me.

The morning of the third day a woman from the US War Dogs Association spoke to us about the organization and their efforts to secure medals of honor and memorials for the fallen canine officers. It was very moving. Following this, a pathologist from the medical examiner’s office presented on animals involved in some of the cases she has worked – VERY graphic pictures but equally interesting – did you know that Miami-Dade County experiences the most horse slaughter in the country?

Dr. Randy Lockwood from the ASPCA gave an extremely heart-wrenching talk regarding Phoenix – a dog who was doused in gasoline and set on fire by two brothers in Baltimore. Dr. Lockwood was called to consult on the case. I was in tears as he described the incident – how there was surveillance video of two boys (they were not yet 18-years-old at the time of the incident) kicking a dog who approached them in an alley, then leading the dog somewhere off camera; a few minutes later the video showed the same boys running out of the alley, followed by a dog running, engulfed in flames. A Baltimore police officer on routine patrol had the decency to stop, put out the fire, and take the dog for emergency medical treatment. She called for other officers to come process the scene but NO ONE responded – not for a week. In that time all evidence had been compromised. The gas can was collected, but it had been sitting in the rain for a week. Dog feces was found in an abandoned house the brothers were known to frequent, but samples were not taken to compare to Phoenix, so no connection between the boys and the dog could be established. No one at the hospital where the dog was treated saved the towel she came in with for accelerant testing. No hair samples were collected. The collar on the dog was saved but it was not preserved in a non-reactive metal container that would keep the gasoline from degrading. Interviews with witnesses were futile, as Baltimore has a well-known “stop snitchin'” attitude and an extreme reluctance to cooperate with police. Phoenix was euthanized due to the severity of her injuries after a valiant fight, and the boys were remanded into adult court.

Phoenix

As many people now know, fire-setting and animal abuse have long been established as two major precursors to even more serious crimes and interpersonal violence.  During trial, the lack of sufficient evidence was the downfall of the case. The defense witnesses cast doubt on everything – the video surveillance, the arson evidence… the jury ended up in a deadlock and the defendants were released. They were retried recently and found not guilty. It took only an hour to decide, after almost 20 hours of deliberation at the first trial. News reports said the second jury was visibly disinterested, often seen laughing or even sleeping. There were issues with evidence and testimony being barred. In short, it went horribly wrong. Interestingly, a bit of poetic justice: both boys have been arrested and thrown in jail on other charges since the first trial, including drug possession, burglary, and attempted murder. But, as Dr. Lockwood said, Phoenix did not die in vain: an anti-animal cruelty task force has been established in Baltimore. Billboards have gone up. Awareness has increased. Some good has come of it. But the sickness in the pit of my stomach even as I write this remains strong. This is why I continue to be interested in increasing the knowledge of proper forensic techniques for those involved in animal cruelty cases.

Finally, Diane Balkin spoke again, this time on search and seizure and proper execution of warrants. She told us of an interesting case in which a weapon was found in a trash can that was located right outside a suspect’s house. The trash can was not included in the warrant and so the weapon could not be seized as evidence because of the concept of curtilage, which describes the area immediately surrounding a house including associated structures where a homeowner has a reasonable expectation of privacy. It could have been seized if the warrant included the trash cans, or if the cans had been moved to the curb for pick up, as this would have made them “abandoned” property. Interesting. I love law and should have been an attorney.

Now, it is back home and back to reality. I am sad my time at the conference is over but glad for all of the new information. It is always a comfortable bubble of support at these conferences, but it bursts fairly harshly when I am home and on my own. But let’s see if I can make something happen here.

Thank you so much to IVFSA for all of your hard work and for inspiring me to continue the fight!

Here are some more photos of my time in South Beach – enjoy!

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Veterinary Forensics Conference, Day 2 Continued

Have my descriptions of the goings-on at this conference gotten you excited? I hope so!

The rest of day 2 was a whirlwind. There were presentations by students at the University of Florida, one on using craniometric measurements to determine sex in canines, and one on using cellular markers, or RNA, to determine the postmortem interval.

Dog skull (photo by skullsite.co.uk)

Nancy Bradley, a former police officer turned veterinarian, spoke on collecting ballistic evidence; her expertise came after the serial shooter case in Phoenix occurred several years ago. Her emphasis on handling the ballistic evidence from the animals in that case forced law enforcement to see the value of understanding what happened to the animals, because it was directly related to the human side of the investigation. Some of her pointers: collect gun shot residue (GSR) from the body, even if it may be difficult to test due to the distortion from the fur; use trajectory rods to show the path of the bullet after taking radiographs and put the rods through all of the organs affected; ask officers if they want the bullet cleaned or preserved for cytology; and handle any projectiles with your gloved hands or with plastic forceps rather than metal since the lead is surprisingly malleable and any lands and grooves (that would be used to prove/disprove a match could potentially be marred by improper collection methods.

After this was a presentation by Belinda Lewis, a photographer who teaches officers proper photographic techniques. I really learned a lot from her. Some of the tips she shared I already knew from school: when photographing, fill the frame, maximize the depth of field, etc., but she also taught us to use 18% gray scales rather than white when photographing evidence since it can wash out the photo, and to use gray towels under bodies during necropsies for the same reason. In specific cases, look for things that are often overlooked, for example, if a dog is found starved, show that the chain it was tethered with was too short to reach any food source. And photograph all necropsies!

Finally, Douglas Mader, a veterinarian and specialist in reptiles, gave a fun and extremely interesting presentation on reptile forensics, a subject I know NOTHING about. It was truly fascinating, because he made us question what really constitutes abuse. Many people put live mice in a cage with a snake thinking that the snake will eat the mouse, but often the snake is not hungry but the mouse is… the mouse can cause sometimes severe damage to the snake by gnawing on it and the snake will typically fail to react because it’s predator instincts are not being utilized when it’s not hungry. This most likely isn’t abuse but merely a mistake. However, what if someone puts a ferret in with a snake? Picture the damage a ferret could inflict on a snake. That shows intent. And did you know that the USDA does not cover reptiles or amphibians with regards to care? And there is no published data on required cage habitats. Pictures of a puppy mill can invoke feelings of sadness and disgust. We’ve realized how horrible they are. But what about the snake breeders who keep them housed in tiny plastic cages with barely enough room to move, no stimulation or proper ventilation? Why is this not considered as reprehensible as the puppy mill? Interesting discussions also on whether or not reptiles and amphibians feel pain or stress or boredom, and, really, how we would know? Dr. Mader was SO much fun and had us laughing hysterically while still pondering some serious issues.

Snakes in breeding boxes in an incubator (photo from reptilegeeks.com). Is this acceptable??

Sadly, that was the end of the second day of presentations. The evening concluded with a business meeting, and some of us got together for dinner and drinks. I found myself exhausted but exhilarated by all of the things I had seen and learned. These conferences really make me anxious to learn more. I know that I will be back in school in the not-so-distant future, possibly pursuing anthropology, or molecular biology. Not sure yet. But this conference has sure given me much to think about!

Stay tuned for the third and last day! And as always, you can find more information on the IVFSA website!

Parked outside our hotel!

Veterinary Forensics Conference, Day 1 Continued

Since the first Day 1 update was so incredibly long, I will try to do a better job of summing things up, but there is just so much good information to share!

The final speaker of day 1 was Dr. Mike Warren, an anthropologist and C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory director. His talk was very interesting as it brought to light the lack of existing information with regard to the evaluation of animal skeletal remains in a forensic concept. He stressed the need to develop veterinary forensic osteology methodology, and perhaps a database. Although the basic properties of bone are the same between species, there is a lot that is unknown: do hanged pit bulls (often seen with regard to dog fighting) suffer any variation of a hangman’s fracture (a fracture of the pedicles of the C2 vertebra) in humans? How does a quadruped’s vertebral column respond? With regard to fractures from blunt force trauma to the cranial vault, do bones fracture the same way all the time (in humans, cranial bone responds in typical patterns to blunt force trauma)? In animals, are there named fractures with known mechanisms, like Colles fractures in humans? This is an area ripe for research – I could hardly sit still, I was so excited by this!

A poster presentation followed the speakers (I was privileged to be able to present and made a lot of great contacts) and then it was time for the soiree! Great appetizers and prepared food was served:

Our happy chefs…

and of course dessert:

Fondue!

and the 2012 conference’s signature drink, the Algor Mortis:

A rum concoction that tasted much better than it’s name would imply.

After gorging ourselves there was a “Bring Your Own Slides” event, where attendees could present cases they worked.

All in all, it was a great way to start the conference! More to come…

If you’d like to be part of next year’s conference, keep checking the IVFSA website!

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!

Some Small Successes for a JUMBO Problem

Those who know me are familiar with my elephant obsession. For those who don’t, if you stick around here long enough you will realize that I am passionate about elephants to the point of losing sleep over their many plights. Recently there have been a number of stories written about the ongoing elephant poaching crises and the unrelenting desire for ivory. I wrote a post on this topic myself not too long ago. Vanity Fair has just published an article for their August issue titled Agony and Ivory  – please click the link below to watch a short video that describes the research behind the story (the footage is amazing):

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/08/elephants-video

The comment that scares me the most: “If 35,000 elephants are being killed a year and there’s only 500,000 left, then they would all be gone in less than 20 years unless we do something fast about this.” (Alex Shoumatoff)

This is why I lose sleep.

You can read the full Vanity Fair article here:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/08/elephants-201108

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorizes the African elephant population as “vulnerable”; their numbers are thought to be generally increasing, with the most steady positive numbers being reported in Eastern and Southern Africa. However, this is only good news if the poaching ceases; if it continues, their wobbly population status will fall to the opposite side, and quickly. A female elephant will produce a calf approximately once every five years – they have the longest gestation period of any mammal at 22 months. Population growth in elephants happens extremely slowly.

The Asian elephant population status is much worse. They are classified as “endangered”and their numbers are sickeningly low: 41,410–52,345 worldwide and the population trend is decreasing, mostly due to habitat loss (IUCN) although they do face poaching dangers like their African counterparts.

But there is some good news trickling out of elephant-populated countries. In Namibia (where I spent time in 2008), four poachers were caught in the Caprivi region smuggling tusks across the border from Botswana: “A public tip-off to the wildlife authorities first stated that the men were hunting buffalo and hippo in the area; Colgar Sikopo, Deputy Director of Wildlife Management in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, said an investigation started immediately after they received the alert from the Caprivi Bamunu conservancy that people from the area were involved in illegal hunting,” (http://www.namibian.com.na/news/full-story/archive/2011/july/article/elephant-poachers-caught/). And Kenya is set to destroy some of its stockpiled ivory: “Kenya will next week burn nearly five tonnes of ivory poached in eastern and southern Africa and stockpiled for nearly a decade; the 4.967 tonnes (10,950 pounds) of elephant tusks were seized in Singapore in 2002, and stored since then at a wildlife rangers training centre in eastern Kenya (the tusks originated in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia),” (http://www.globalanimal.org/2011/07/18/stash-of-ivory-set-to-be-burned/45770/).

I’m choosing to focus on the positives, while remaining vigilant about the negative reality. There are many good things happening in this battle; for instance the recent implementation of DNA technology has given authorities a competitive advantage because it enables them to track the origination of tusks in an effort to study poaching trends. I can only hope that more people will realize how valuable these species are. I am unable to visualize a world without them. But elephants are not the only ones we stand to lose. Take some time to poke around the IUCN’s Red List. It’s frightening just how many animals and plants are dangerously close to disappearing forever. That’s FOREVER, folks. I am hoping to make another trek across the Atlantic to study more wildlife in the very near future… I want to see as much of it as I can, exactly where it’s supposed to be, just in case we can’t preserve it in time.

Here is a slideshow of some photos from my time in Namibia. Enjoy.

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ASPCA’s Groundbreaking DNA News – March, 2011

This is unprecedented… two humane law enforcement cases have resulted in felony convictions based on DNA evidence. I’m so excited I can barely write this, so here is the link to the article on the ASPCA site:

DNA Evidence Revolutionizes Cruelty Cases in NYC

I was priveleged to hear Dr. Robert Reisman, the ASPCA medical coordinator quoted in the article, speak at last year’s veterinary forensics conference . He has been doing some phenomenal research with graduate students in New York that will certainly add to this emerging science. And although there is already an established canine DNA database (Canine CODIS), these two cases make it even more apparent that DNA can be used to solve not only human crimes, but crimes against animals too.

How great is this? Just one more step towards making the laws established to protect animals even stronger.
Keep up the good work!

photo courtesy of ASPCA.org

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