Category Archives: Veterinary Forensics

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!

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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!

Trying Everything

Photo by animalcsi

In my last post I wrote about the most recent devastating poaching event in Cameroon, in which hundreds of elephants were gunned down by poachers for their ivory. Efforts to stop the slaughter in countries all across Africa are underway but the problems are numerous and include rangers being out-manned and out-gunned by armies of poachers who arrive on horseback with advanced weaponry and an almost complete lack of government funding for anti-poaching efforts. But I have to celebrate even the small efforts, and the short video below from the New Zealand Herald demonstrates one of the ways Kenya is battling back by attaching radio collars to elephants. This will enable the wildlife officials to track them and know better how to direct the on-the-ground teams deployed to fight the poachers.

Click here for the video: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/video/news/video.cfm?c_id=1501138&gal_cid=1501138&gallery_id=125030

I also came across an interesting article describing a unique method to deter elephants from crop-raiding by using chili pepper mixed with engine oil to coat fences. Not only do elephants face an uncertain future due to poaching, but they are also often the subject of farmers’ anger when they steal crops; the conflicts often end in the death of either the farmer or the elephant. This chili pepper method has gained in popularity as a deterrent, along with using bees. But as elephants are extremely adaptable and will eventually adjust to the techniques or find ways around them, new ideas are constantly needed. Read the article on the chili pepper fences below:

http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052702303815404577333780433251036-lMyQjAxMTAyMDEwNjExNDYyWj.html?mod=wsj_share_email

As an aside, this week I am attending the veterinary forensics conference put on by the International Veterinary Forensic Science Association (IVFSA). It is my third IVFSA event and I have enjoyed all of them and I will be posting updates as to the goings-on down here in beautiful Miami!

Here’s the view from my hotel room:

Calling All Veterinarians and Vet Techs!

 

My apologies for the long hiatus; 2012 came in with a bang and has proven to be a very busy year so far! The months of January and February were hectic, preparing for the American Academy of Forensic Science’s  (AAFS) Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA, where I was priveledged to present research that I had been working on for some time (much more on the conference later!).

The AAFS conference was an amazing experience for this budding forensic scientist, and I truly encourage anyone out there considering a career in this field or already working in it to attend the next one. I met many talented and established professionals, and saw a great deal of inspiring research. But the highlight for me came in the middle of the week, when the “general” section of the Academy (see their website for a breakdown of their sections based on forensic specialty) to which I belong took a unanimous vote to recognize veterinary forensics as a discipline under their auspice!

What does this mean? It signifies the recognition of the importance of forensics in veterinary/animal practices, and opens the door to research. It allows for support of those working in animal professions and encourages collaboration among forensic professionals. In short, it’s HUGE, and I was honored to be there to see it happen!

So the AAFS in encouraging all members of the veterinary community to apply for membership! The organization is a fantastic opportunity to learn, grow, meet other professionals, and gain recognition and awards. I recommend it to everyone, especially those in the animal community. Let’s work together to strengthen this field of forensic science!

Follow the link below to read the AAFS letter to veterinary staff interested in membership:

http://www.aafs.org/forensic-veterinarians-are-encouraged-apply-membership

I thank the AAFS for supporting our work and vision!

 

Check Your State’s Humane Law Ranking

Photo courtesy of the UK Human Rights Blog

 

Today the Humane Society released a report detailing all 50 states’ animal laws in 2011, as they relate to “issues ranging from animal fighting to farm animals to wildlife to companion animals”. When you click the link below it will bring you to an interactive map. Hover over any state to see a brief synopsis and whether or not it increased or decreased in its rank in 2011.

I am very disappointed in my own state’s ranking, and would have thought it to be higher than it actually is. And something I already knew from working in the field that I do: it is one of the only states with no felony penalties for first-time cruelty violations. This fact is sad and discouraging, given the horrendous nature of some of the animal crimes I’ve seen. But laws can change.

Take a look and see how your state ranks:

http://www.humanesociety.org/about/state/humane_state_ranking_2011.html

The Sparkle of a New Year

 

She came into the clinic last Tuesday – a sad, emaciated, tiny black pit bull puppy, no older than six months. Her owner said that she had gotten her hind leg caught in a fence recently, and thought it might heal on its own. Clearly it had not. It was gangrenous and rotten, skin sloughing off and smelling like death. The humane officers were told about the dog, and decided to cite the owner for lack of vet care. Just another form of abuse. He had no choice but to surrender the dog to us.

Her name was Sparkle. I have no idea if that was the name she came in with or the name the girls gave her when she was signed over – the first time I saw her she was being prepped for surgery… the entire leg needed to be removed. When I opened her cage door, her skinny little tail beat out a steady beat on the metal walls and she shyly hobbled over to me, head down, eyes hopeful, despite the obvious pain she must have been in. I squeezed that little dog for all it was worth, rubbed her head, fluffed her blankets; I knew no one else wanted to go near her because of how bad that rotten limb smelled. But I didn’t care. And it was probably the only kindness she had ever known.

She looked so tiny and frail on the operating table. I thought about what an awful life she had most likely had, and the senselessness of it all. I wondered about the cruelty and dismissive actions of people who consider it a right and not a privilege to own a pet. I also thought about what a great life she could have when the pain was over and she learned to hop around on three legs. A dog so young and so resilient should have no trouble adapting, and would no doubt make some good, kind person very happy. And she almost made it.

The surgery was practically over. Only a few stitches remained. But her little heart just couldn’t take it. I swallowed the huge lump in my throat and coughed back tears as I forced breaths of pure oxygen into her lungs and the surgeon frantically tried CPR, pleading with her not to give up. But the heart monitor wailed its steady, horrible, monotone announcement. I looked at the surgeon and she at me, both not willing to accept it. Sparkle held on strong throughout the entire procedure. We still don’t know what happened.

When I turned off the lights in the surgery ward that night I glanced at Sparkle’s empty cage. And grabbed the little stuffed monkey toy that she had in there with her. I wanted to somehow keep her with me. So the monkey sits on my dashboard now as a reminder.

My only consolation? That Sparkle’s horrible owner will be prosecuted. I can only hope that the hugs and pets and love she briefly got from me gave her some happiness.

For 2012, I wish for no more sad endings. No more pain, torture, neglect, or suffering at the hands of humans. No more ignorance, no more cruelty, no more insensitivity. This New Year, I want to imagine a world where animals are respected, admired, protected, and cared for. In my mind all this is possible. Will you help me make 2012 a better year? For them? For all the Sparkles out there?

“The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” – Mark Twain

Happy New Year to all of my readers. May all of your wishes for the new year come true.

Shine on from the Heavens, Sparkle.

Guest post: Understanding the Emotional Symptoms of Animal Abuse

This is a guest post by Allison Gamble!

People who suffer from physical and psychological abuse exhibit behavioral and emotional symptoms even long after the abuse has stopped, and the same is true for animals. Whether the abuse is emotional or physical, it will leave indelible marks on the animal’s psyche. However, by employing a sort of animal forensic psychology, you can learn to better understand these behaviors, including the types of abuse known to cause each, which is essential if you wish to successfully rehabilitate an animal that has suffered from abuse. Only by understanding the cause of the behavior and what actions you should avoid when handling the animal will you be able to mitigate the animal’s reactions and help it overcome the fear and aggression that maybe a characteristic part of its current behavior.

Territorial Aggression as a Reaction to Abuse

Territorial aggression is primarily thought of as a canine behavior; although it can affect any animal that feels that its territory is threatened. Generally, territorial aggression is a reaction to the animal’s territory being severely limited, often by chaining the animal.

According to the National Humane Education Society , animals that are chained typically suffer from neglect in several forms, including inadequate shelter, nutrition and hydration. As such, their basic survival needs are not met on a regular basis. Additionally, the animal, generally a dog, does not receive the love and attention that it craves as a social animal. As they become farther removed from the human companionship that would make them safe to be around, they tend to become aggressive. Torment at the hands of passing people and the aggression of other animals is also common, exasperating this condition. Their reaction is generally preordained. They behave aggressively, defending what little territory they have to call their own.

The Journal of the Veterinary Medical Association conducted a study that revealed chained dogs were 2.8 times more likely to bite than their non-chained counterparts. This due to the fact they are simply trying to protect their small territory from others, and they have not had the chance to form the necessary human bonds that would naturally eliminate this behavior.

It is important to note that not all animals that are chained are the victims of abuse. Some may be chained for short periods of time with fresh food and water or even be chained only when their owner is also working outside. These animals typically will not be aggressive or exhibit other symptoms of abuse, such as depression or timidity.

Aggression Towards the Owner

While it may not perhaps be en vogue to refer to the caretaker of an animal as an owner, most individuals who abuse their animals view themselves as just that. The animal is theirs to do with as they please. For some, this will include physical violence (beating or otherwise harming the animal when it disobeys), emotional abuse (withholding the affection the animal craves) and physical neglect (providing inadequate food, water, shelter, and protection from fleas and other parasites). The dog learns to fear the owner because the owner does not provide what it needs and because the owner often treats the animal in ways that cause it to cower or feel physical pain. Thus, as a the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) points out, animals that cower in fear or react with aggression when approached by their owner generally are victims of abuse.

Timidity

Oftentimes, animal abuse takes the form of neglect, and the animal becomes fearful of people because she or he has not been properly socialized. Generally, emotionally abused animals will behave in passive and timid ways, although it is not possible to say that all dogs that are submissive have been abused. For some, this is just their personality. For others, it is a deliberate choice.  A paper by Dr. Kertsi Seksel  details some of the patterns in submissive and timid behavior abused animals will exhibit, including learned helplessness (failing to help itself due to fear of the outcome), behavioral extremes and involuntary urination due to stress.

Depression

Just like people, animals can become depressed as well. However, unlike people, depression in animals generally does not last for long periods of time. As discussed by  WebMD , often it is related to changes in the animal’s environment or the loss of a primary caregiver. However, in some cases, depression may be a sign of abuse.

Generally, depression in animals is characterized by changes in behavior; listlessness; and a lack of enthusiasm for events, such as walks and meals, which typically made their days exciting. It would be a mistake to view an animal that appears depressed as abused, as many factors may contribute to depression in animals. However, a depressed animal should be carefully monitored, especially if the behavior does not change, as this might be a sign of depression.

A Word of Caution

No single behavioral sign is symptomatic of abuse. Just as people act out for a variety of reasons, so do animals. An aggressive dog may fear people due to a learned response in its past, but the current owner is not the abuser, nor does it mean the dog is kept chained all of the time. Timid animals learn to be submissive for a number of reasons, and oftentimes it can be a sign that the animal feels safe and protected with its current caretaker. They would act out if they did not feel this way. Depression can easily be seen as a sign of abuse, but often it speaks to a personal heartache the animal has recently faced.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that understanding an animal’s past circumstances can be the key to having a successful relationship with it in the present. An animal that was kept chained for much of its life prior to rescue should not be put back on a chain. Instead, you should work carefully to teach the animal that he does not need to guard his territory. If an animal was repeatedly struck with a folded newspaper, learn from his cues and avoid carrying a folded newspaper around him or her. With careful work and the guidance of professionals, including animal behaviorists and veterinarians, it is possible to mitigate the emotional symptoms of animal abuse.