Taking a bite out of animal crime

Forensic evidence plays a major role in bringing animal abusers to justice


     While officers may view animal crimes as foreign territory, Janssen draws many parallels between investigating violent crimes against humans and animal cruelty cases. Much like at a homicide scene, officers first step would be to determine who lived in the home where the carcass turned up; information that could lead them to the perpetrator. Officers then would case the neighborhood to unearth what others witnessed and heard. "People know what an animal cry or a scream sounds like," Janssen says. "If they can remember when and where they heard it, it helps determine when and where the crime occurred."

     Sometimes Schindler finds authorities fail to recognize what is or isn't considered a serious cruelty. Officers may cursorily examine an animal and determine it is fine, when it actually sustained a severe beating. The same occurs in animal fighting cases where investigating officers see little evidence of fighting or scarring and assume the report was made in error. However, Schindler says canines present are often breeding or bait animals, not fighting dogs. He recommends instead searching for physical equipment such as large tires, thick ropes, heavy chains, treadmills, spring poles, high-protein foods, illegal medications; all of which may be used in animal fighting operations. Underground magazines, such as Sporting Dog Journal or Pit Bull Reporter, can indicate an interest in dog fighting. A large number of pit bulls chained outside or in pens also points to trouble. "Someone who has a high number of pit bulls is generally not breeding them for legitimate activities," he says.

     In animal neglect calls, officers can summon animal control, which may provide information to help owners properly care for their pets. It is important to scan every scene for the following signs of neglect, says Maddox.

  • Does the animal have food, water and shelter?
  • Does the animal appear healthy? Is its weight appropriate? Does its coat look healthy? What conditions is it living in? "There may be 75 cats in a home and they all may appear healthy," he says. "But living with 75 cats is not a healthy situation."

     Observing animal behavior also helps spot signs of trouble. Here, a little knowledge of animal behavior can go a long way. Recently a cat had been strangled and imposed crucifix style. Merck used her familiarity with feline behavior to piece the crime together One, she knew cats are very hard to catch, which lead her to inquire how the suspect captured and strangled the feline. Her research found the perpetrator clobbered the cat over the head to gain access. Merck followed a similar process in the puppy trial, where she was able to prove both teens participated in the killing. "It's harder to restrain a puppy or kitten than it is to restrain an adult cat or dog," she explains. "This became significant because a live demonstration on a similar-aged puppy proved both suspects were needed to hog-tie the animal."

Fetch the evidence

     Fully prosecuting animal crimes requires evidence — lots of it. And this evidence may seem to be in short supply because the victims cannot speak for themselves. However, Janssen points out today's jurors expect CSI-type evidence, especially in animal cases where they come in thinking: "This can't be serious because it's an animal."

     Properly collecting and documenting evidence requires law enforcement expertise, says Chief Victor "Buddy" Amato, a sworn police officer who has headed the Monmouth County (New Jersey) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) for five years. He adds officers cannot investigate animal crimes haphazardly. "Thinking 'it's just an animal' can't be part of your state of mind or you will lose the case because you failed to collect the proper evidence," he explains. "You have to photograph, you have to document, you have to talk to witnesses, and you have to take the body and make sure a necropsy is done."

     In the puppy torture case, Merck gathered urine, feces, blood, necropsied the body, and photographed the crime scene. These are all examples of evidence that may be assembled in animal abuse cases.

     Neglect ranks as the No. 1 crime Merck encounters. To prove negligence, she looks for bodily fluid and feces. A lack of feces is significant because it shows that either the animal hasn't been fed or the suspect has cleaned up the mess. She also hunts for insect evidence, such as maggots on food or a diseased body. Ammonia meters help measure odors within the home; data necessary for prosecutors to illustrate how damaging the ammonia levels were.

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