Weighing My Options and Making Decisions

Over the past month I have faced a gut-wrenching career choice. It is the reason I’ve been so out of touch with this site, and for that I apologize. But I’ve finally reached a decision and feel ready to write about it.

Because of a contact I made at a forensics conference this year, I was offered a position at the company for which he works. For privacy purposes I won’t disclose the name, but suffice it to say it is one of the world’s most impressive forensic labs, and that is no exaggeration. It was an amazing opportunity, and one that I thought I would never have. And the salary matched the prestige of the position I was offered – the whole package was mind-blowing. I was honored and more than a little flattered. I almost accepted.

Perhaps a more career savvy person would have jumped at the chance. Perhaps I should have. But I chose to remain where I am, with a significantly lower salary, much less stature and prominence, and a very shaky future. Why? Because of the things I consider important.

For some, money and stature are the ultimate career goals. But for me they have never been as important as doing something I am passionate about and personally invested in. I made a commitment to this field because I care deeply about it and see a great future for it, and I’d like to continue to be a part of it. Maybe that will change somewhere down the line and I will move on to something else, but for the time being I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything close to what I set out to do, and the thought of abandoning those goals at this point in my life made me unbelievably sad.

There are many challenges I face on a daily basis in my current position, some of which seem insurmountable at times. But I don’t want to be a quitter – not when so much is personally at stake. I want to give it my best shot. I want to be able to look back and say I tried, even if things don’t work out. I have to swallow my fear and charge ahead.

This decision has been the toughest one I’ve faced in my professional life. It caused me countless sleepless nights and horrible stress, and I know I was a terribly unpleasant person to be around during the whole process. And I still struggle with the choice I made and probably will for awhile. Did I do the right thing? Was this a smart move? Or was it another rotten mistake? Maybe I’ll never know. All I do know is that I have to move on and take my parents’ advice and not look back. Focus on the good things: I get to stay close to family, be in a city I love (love to hate, at times!), and work with animals. I can have the satisfaction of keeping a job I fought tooth and nail to get, despite all of its problems (and there are many). I can be a trendsetter and a pioneer. I can start things that have never been done before. I will not have to be just another nameless cog in a wheel.

The frustrations will be many and there will be lots of times I just want to give up – this I know. But I won’t. I have ideas and enthusiasm for this. Whatever this becomes will be a direct result of what I make happen. I am determined. And I have a lot to learn. I am scared, but I will survive (I think).

I thought I’d close this post with a video that sums it all up. Those who know me know I am a Phillies fan for life, and hold a special place in my heart for legendary sportscaster Harry Kalas who left us far too soon. He was an amazing person, and hearing his voice reminds me of summer nights as a kid with my dad, watching the Phils battle it out. Kalas is well known for singing a song called “High Hopes” by Frank Sinatra, and whenever I struggle with sadness or frustration, it is my go-to mantra. It is a very fitting song for this occasion.

Onward and upward.

Click the link below to sing along 🙂

http://youtu.be/PzpJisfYNKA

Next time your found, with your chin on the ground
There a lot to be learned, so look around

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
Hes got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time your gettin’ low
‘Stead of lettin’ go
Just remember that ant
Oops there goes another rubber tree plant

 

Celebrating Newfound Freedom

Happy 4th of July!

In celebration of this holiday, I’d like to share two recent, happy stories from the ASPCA:

The last week in June saw a judge in Florida rule in favor of turing over ownership of 700 cats to local authorities, rather than have them return to the sanctuary where they were housed. Thanks to the court order, they are one step closer to finding good forever homes and will never have to return to the filthy environment they were confiscated from – an overwhelmed “rescue” called Caboodle Ranch that could not (and would not, in some cases) provide the necessary care for the animals housed on site. The judge also “prohibited Caboodle Ranch from acquiring any more animals, ensuring that no more cats fall victim to hoarding there” (aspca.org).

 

Caboodle Ranch (photo courtesy of animalhoardinginfo.blogspot.com)

 

Read about the Caboodle Ranch investigation and rescue (which occurred this past February) by following this link (there’s a great video with on-the-ground footage – I was happy to see many familiar faces from the IVFSA conferences I’ve attended!): http://www.aspca.org/Fight-Animal-Cruelty/aspca-in-action/madison-county-florida-february-2012

Also in June, the ASPCA, along with NYPD Vice Enforcement Division and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, rescued 50 dogs “ranging in age from 12 weeks to five years,  found living in the windowless basement of a six-story apartment building in the Bronx. The space, which served as a makeshift dog fighting arena, was littered with crude wooden cages and had the capacity for roughly 100 spectators. Raul Sanchez, the building’s superintendant, was taken into custody and charged with animal fighting, a felony. Also discovered on scene were a loaded .25-caliber handgun, U.S. currency, and other equipment associated with dog fighting—including dog treadmills, harnesses, muzzles, syringes and a shopping cart full of raw chicken parts” (aspca.org)

Bronx Dog Fighting Raid (photo courtesy of ASPCA)

Read about the rescue here: http://blog.aspca.org/content/aspca-rescues-50-dogs-bronx-dog-fighting-case

These victories prove we CAN make a difference! Let’s keep up the good work, and LET FREEDOM RING!

P.S. More dogs (cats too!) go missing on July 4 than any other day of the year. Fireworks scare animals! Keep your pets safe this holiday!

Pledging to Help

Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC

Alert: Another elephant post…

Some good, some bad. Recently, 10 African countries (Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Rwanda and Sao Tome e Principe) signed a plan to “strengthen law enforcement and better combat poaching of elephants and other species at risk from illegal wildlife trade” (Seattlepi.com). These 10 countries make up the Central African Forest Commission, or COMIFAC.

COMIFAC leaders (photo courtesy of Conservation International)

Leaders from COMIFAC agreed to increase collaboration with law enforcement, customs, and the courts to combat poaching:

“The law enforcement action plan includes provisions to increase anti-poaching efforts in each of the countries and to enable joint-country patrols in some transborder areas. Ivory, often bound for Asia, is frequently smuggled across inland borders before reaching overseas exit points such as ports and airports. Under the plan, customs controls are also set to be bolstered at international transit hubs. To ensure that criminals engaging in illegal wildlife trade are arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, COMIFAC countries plan to ramp up investigations and conduct more thorough prosecutions. Cases will also be monitored for corruption and action taken against anyone attempting to impede justice” (Seattlepi.com).

Previously I had posted on the devastating slaughter of over 200 elephants in Cameroon. With poaching at its highest in a decade, this agreement could not come at a better time. A UN-backed report reinforced what many studies have already shown – that the past three years have seen an extreme increase in elephant poaching with record seizures of ivory, and much more sophisticated efforts on the part of poachers.

“We need to enhance our collective efforts across range, transit and consumer states to reverse the current disturbing trends in elephant poaching and ivory smuggling,” the Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), John E. Scanlon, said in a news release on the report.

“While being essential, enforcement efforts to stop wildlife crime must not just result in seizures – they must result in prosecutions, convictions and strong penalties to stop the flow of contraband,” he added. “The whole ‘enforcement chain’ must work together.” (un.org)

Read the article here: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42295&Cr=endangered+species&Cr1=

In my mind, it is not only enforcement that will make the difference, but education. However, changing people’s attitudes and beliefs about the value of ivory, the necessity of endangered animal parts for use in traditional medicine, or the excitement of owning an exotic pet will be a monumental task.

All I can do is spread the word, stay involved, and hope for the best.

Cameroon ranger with ivory (photo courtesy of WWF)

Protecting Our Oceans

Last Friday was World Oceans Day. I have always loved the ocean, and was fortunate enough to live at the beaches of southern Delaware a few years ago where I could surf, fish, and take my dog for a swim in the ocean and bay any time I wished. To me, the ocean is symbolic and awe-inspiring, capable of evoking unbridled happiness and intense fear. She commands constant respect; take her for granted for only a second and she will furiously slap you back into submission.

But the world’s oceans are rapidly being depleted of the species that make them what they are. Poachers are snatching coral, rays, and aquatic species of all kinds at an unsustainable rate. Perhaps the worst are the shark poachers, who typically catch sharks, cut off their dorsal fins, and toss them carelessly back into the ocean to die. One Washington Post article states that  “reef sharks in the Pacific have declined more than 90 percent in recent decades”.

Recently, several shark poachers were caught off the coast of Indonesia among a group of islands known as Raja Ampat, a marine protected area (MPA) and a place I have long wanted to visit – it may be one of the most beautiful areas on earth.

Raja Ampat – Indonesia (Photo by Scuba-Libre-Bali.com)

Part of the Bird’s Head Seascape, it is an area that naturally boasts sea turtle nesting, colorful coral, shark and ray breeding grounds, and a multitude of species not seen anywhere else. It is protected by proud, trained villagers working on patrols with local police dedicated to maintaining it’s diversity. A Conservation International (CI) article says:

“Despite its global importance, the area was previously a hotbed of illegal activities such as dynamite fishing and shark finning from outside fishermen. However, in 2006 the local Kawe tribal leaders decided enough was enough. With support from CI, they declared a 155,000-hectare (383,000-acre) MPA in a bottom-up process that included a declaration both by the Papuan traditional Adat council as well as the Raja Ampat government. This was eventually followed by a national declaration affording it the highest level of protection for any MPA in Papua. The Kawe communities took it one step further, declaring over 97.5 percent of the MPA as a “no-take zone” through a traditional Papuan sasi declaration, meaning that no fishing of any kind is allowed within this area. With this declaration they made the Kawe MPA into the single largest no-take zone in all of the Coral Triangle, a region stretching from Indonesia to the Philippines and the Solomon Islands. In addition, in 2011 the area was additionally protected under the Raja Ampat shark sanctuary decree, which forbids any shark and ray fishing anywhere in Raja Ampat,” (http://blog.conservation.org/2012/05/shark-poachers-chased-down-by-indonesian-communities-police/).

Poachers with their catch. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

Unfortunately, as is the case everywhere, some choose to disregard the regulations. In this poaching case, seven boats of fishermen were rounded up for illegal fishing after they tried to evade capture. Long lines and air compressors, gear commonly used in shark fishing, were found on board their vessels. Sharks, still alive but bleeding after being hacked apart, were struggling and dying on the boats. Piles of shark fins, sea cucumbers, and rays were confiscated, and the estimated price of the catch and the gear amounted to approximately 1.5 billion rupiah (about US$ 160,000). The Washington Post states that “sharks are used to make shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, and sea cucumbers are sought by Japanese diners“. This Post article also has a link to an interesting article about shark’s fin soup.

Shark fins. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

The most frustrating thing about this case is that there was not enough man-power to physically capture and prosecute the poachers – it was night and law enforcement had only one boat. Although an official arrest was made and they were ordered to report for processing the next morning, the poachers fled. The government has pledged to pursue them.

The illegal fishermen. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

On a positive note, this shows the willingness of local governments to protect their natural resources from poachers. But in the world’s most remote areas, enforcement of the laws may be difficult if not impossible, due to scarce resources and a lack of personnel. However, it CAN happen… check out this article about Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Park at the tip of the Baja Peninsula  – in just 10 years, the amount of fish in the area has increased more than 460 PERCENT! This amazing feat was achieved solely by strict enforcement of protection laws by locals, and has resulted in not only an incredible recovery of what was once a depleted natural resource area, but in a revenue-generating eco-tourism boom! The article also has a beautiful one minute underwater video of the HOARDES of fish that thrive in the area.

I celebrated World Oceans Day by concentrating on the positive victories. Eliminating poaching CAN be done. Let’s learn from this example and keep pushing. Our oceans depend on it.

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 2

I am blown away by all the information…

On the second day’s agenda:

Toby Wolson, a forensic scientist, spoke on bloodstain pattern analysis (BPS) and the changes this branch of forensics has experienced sine 2008. He told us that standards are being established so that every organization utilizing BPS has something to adhere to, and these are being developed through SWGSTAIN (scientific working group on BPS); in 2009 they published a source for BPA terminology. Every branch of forensics has its own SWG to develop standards to help keep the branches from being inadmissible to court. He also showed us how to take proper photos. I would have liked a bit more of the actual science and perhaps its applicability to vet forensics but the presentation was good nonetheless. Did you know that the Sam Sheppard case in 1966 was the first time that bloodspatter evidence was used in court??

Terrible photo of Toby Wolson’s presentation.

Amanda Fitch, a crime scene investigator at the University of Florida, presented on the proper methods for crime scene sketching. There’s more to it than you think! There are three main sketching techniques that can be used: a plan view, or what is essentially a floor plan, a profile view, which depicts a side view that can show the location of bullet holes or blood spatter on walls, and an exploded view, that is a floor plan view with the walls shown flat. There should always be a rough sketch done at the crime scene that can be finalized later, should a final version be needed for court. And evidence can be measured using either an X,Y coordinate method from fixed points, a triangulation method used mostly in outdoor scenes, or a baseline method, used outdoors where there are no landmarks. I will have to elaborate more on this later… this should be a branch of forensics all to itself.

Sharon Gwaltney-Brant, a veterinarian and president of IVFSA until this meeting, spoke about handling animals in methamphetamine raids. I had never even considered the possibility of this, but it’s a fairly common occurrence in certain areas. By far the most common injury to animals in these circumstances is walking through acids or fluids that have spilled, as there are many hazardous substances in these often clandestine labs. She also said to be cognizant of inhalation injuries, high ammonia levels, and aerosolized chemical spills. Institute a site safety officer and find out who needs to go into the contamination zone. All animals coming out need to be decontaminated, so take any needed evidence samples first, and be aware that blood and urine samples should be taken ASAP, although meth stays in an animal’s/person’s system longer than many drugs. Above all, consider the animal’s safety first. Many of them will be starved, neglected and abused and may need immediate care.

Once again, I have rambled on. But Day 2 isn’t over yet – there’s still lots to come! Can you tell I’m excited?? Stay tuned and don’t forget to check the IVFSA page… the location for the 2013 conference has been posted!!! Stay tuned…

South Beach morning clouds.