Webinar presenter Dr. Melinda Merck answered a number of your questions after her presentation, The Path from Animal Abuse to Human Abuse: Using Veterinary Forensics to Support Investigation and Prosecution Efforts. Here are some of her responses.
Audience Question: Have you ever been involved in an animal cruelty case that was so painful that it was very difficult for you to handle. If so, how did you handle that traumatic stress?
Dr. Merck: It was the mayor in Louisiana. It was difficult because I am very empathetic to victims, human or animal, so what I did was reach out to my colleagues and prosecutors. As veterinarians, we compartmentalize all the time. We go from one patient to another, but that one was hard. What I learned, which I'll lecture on a conference, is to not have sound on first. Do the photos and videos first. How I deal with it is I must be focused on the fact that no matter what, the animal suffering is done by the time we do these cases. They're either deceased or they're in care and have been saved, these aren't happening to them again. I focus on that and I have to be objective to focus on the evidence. That's the only thing I could do to make a difference. I need to be in that mindset. I cannot stress enough the wellness and self-care that must be practiced when working in legal arenas. Veterinarians are in the top, usually at the first or second spot for professions likely to commit suicide. I have things that I do, like yoga, needlework, adult coloring, quilting, puzzles, and watch TV — things that entertain me to get that balance. That's the only way to deal with it, to focus on my work, and know that the pain and suffering is done.
Audience Question: Have statistics been released since NIBRS included animal cruelty and if they have, can you share any of those?
Dr. Merck: I don't think they have. That would be a follow-up question with John Thompson. He might be the conduit to finding that out. They struggled, and I don't know where they're at now. They came out I think last year because the people are doing the cruelty, cases aren't necessarily under law enforcement and therefore don't have an account to be able to report them to NIBRS. So, they came out with a manual last year on how to connect with their agencies, law enforcement agencies, to be able to do that. If it's animal control or animal services, they don't have those counts. We may be another year out before they feel like they've got enough reflective statistics. I do know, last year at HSUS's Animal Expo, a big shelter medicine investigation conference and the FBI had a booth, which was the first time for FBI in an animal conference. So, that's cool.
Audience Question: How can someone help with the animal abuse cases and combat this?
Dr. Merck: There are so many touchpoints and silos with animal cruelty. Supporting your domestic violence shelter, finding out if they have a program that addresses the pets of domestic violence can be another volunteer kind of thing. You can contact me, and I'll give more information as I'm working on a program that can be implemented in any region. Supporting whoever is investigating animal cruelty and those services, what do they need? There's sometimes technology they need. Helping support training for them because budgets are tight. Animal cruelty investigations are low on the list understandably, that they may not be able to afford sending them to training or providing training.
And, the animals themselves. Domestic violence shelters, that's another big area, and whoever's taking in those animals.
Doing these cases cost a lot of money and if they have large scale cases where they're taking in lots of animals, it can run into the hundreds of thousands on their cost. So yeah, have a fundraiser.
Audience Question: What is the role of forensic radiology at the moment with animal cruelty investigations and do you use it as evidence?
Dr. Merck: Forensic radiology is going to be analyzing x-rays for legal cases. There are certain questions we're asking or being asked to answer like how old is that fracture? Can we date things? That's where radiologists are starting to step-up to be able to offer some timelines there. Because of their expertise, or in cases where it was thought to be a trauma due to sexual abuse and it turns out to be an anomaly occasionally seen. That's where they come in to evaluate injuries. Liz Watson, from the University of Florida, has been doing a lot of that work.
Audience Question: What advice do you have for rural law enforcement who don't have a local veterinarian to work with on these cases, and don't have the resources to even pay for outside help?
Dr. Merck: For payment for resources, contact the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ADLF) for your area, or someone in your region willing to assist at least regionally. Let me know your area and I can put the word out. You can also contact the International Veterinarian Forensic Sciences Association (IVFSA) and they have a member's list. Between myself and them, we can find someone, sometimes remotely. ADLF will also help find a veterinarian that can help, maybe not on the scene to examine the animal but to assist otherwise and help identify. We can usually find someone in your area that can help.
Audience Question: What are some of the issues and best practices that you can recommend when an agency is involved in an animal cruelty case where the animal survived and is undergoing treatment?
Dr. Merck: Best practices is to get a forensic vet involved. The most common issues are not taking proper documentation, photos, photo scales. The treating veterinarian may not be familiar with the legal case and not collecting evidence prior to treatment.
Involve getting the expertise even as a consult early on with the veterinarian that's doing that work.
Other issues that come about is if the veterinarian has not attended the trainings that are out there. Their reports can be a problem. They're either insufficient, or they put in emotional response to the case, thus hurting their objectivity. Get the veterinarian to consult on the development and writing of reports for tips, dos and don'ts.
The veterinarians may also be very afraid of court. Don't issue blanket subpoenas without calling them and they have no idea what a 2-week calendar trial means on the subpoena – they'll think they'll be there for two weeks and they'll freak out. Work with them in prepping them and not last-minute stuff.
Best practices, if you have a veterinarian that you're working within your area, a lot of these cases plead. Some of them can be uncomfortable so it will be best to set up mock scenarios, mock courts to get them comfortable with testimony when that happens because she doesn't have the experience.
Host Comment/Aaron: I can also say based on our experience working with other prosecutors with any kind of specialized case type, it's really important to identify these kinds of resources before you have that next case and line up the doctors to try to understand what your resources and area are. Folks can also reach out to ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States to find resources in their area.
Dr. Merck: They have investigators, attorneys, APA. The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA) and the attorneys I know at ALDF, they think outside the box. They've been on the front lines so it's great to pick their brain.
Click Here to See a Recording of The Path from Animal Abuse to Human Abuse: Using Veterinary Forensics to Support Investigation and Prosecution Efforts.