Taking a bite out of animal crime

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


     Because abusers commonly defend themselves by claiming the animal doesn't belong to them, Merck also obtains DNA to confirm this connection. Collected blood and confiscated weapons with blood on them may be used to retrieve this evidence.

     Images documenting the scene also paint a picture of the animal's suffering that cannot be underestimated, adds Schindler. "People always want to rush in, grab the animal and run out," he says. "But the most important thing you can do is photograph everything."

     Photography helped secure a conviction for a man accused of beating his dog with bricks. When Schindler responded, the owner protested he didn't own a dog, despite barking inside the home and eyewitness accounts. An emergency search warrant gained access to the residence, where officials discovered five emaciated dogs and an underage kitten. Two of the canines were tied on leashes so short they couldn't even lie down. First responders photographed these conditions — before removing the animals. "The images, on top of witness statements, blood on the dog and blood spatter in the home, really sealed the deal," Schindler says. "Had we just walked away when the suspect said he didn't have a dog, we never would have found those animals."

No man is an island

     The murky waters of animal cruelty cases muddy further when one realizes that many officers lack investigative training in this area, reports Lt. Mary Respess, a 24-year law enforcement veteran who runs the Animal Control Unit of the Gwinnett County (Georgia) Police Department. For instance, officers may respond to a domestic violence scene and not recognize dog fighting equipment inside the home or realize that the way the animals are being kept is a crime. The ability to notice these things can provide an opportunity to open up bigger cases, she says, "But officers need to know what to look for in the animals."

     It becomes imperative that law enforcers not only learn about relevant evidence in animal cruelty cases but also solicit the assistance of a forensic vet to help interpret animal behavior on-scene, says Merck. While proving a crime occurred, determining the timeline for that event, and trying to link the animal to the suspect and the suspect to the scene, a forensic vet, like Merck, attempts to unwind the incident from beginning to end, examining what happened to the animal every step of the way to establish how it might have reacted. This process leads these professionals to critical evidence that often makes or breaks a case.

     However, Amato recommends agencies draw from all available resources not just veterinarians. If the call involves a marine animal, he says to summon the Marine Animal Rescue Society. If it's a zoo animal, perhaps a zoologist can help. The problem is, he says, many officers try to be experts in all things. "You can't do that. You've got to approach these cases with the idea that you need everyone you can to help with the investigation," he says.

     In the case against Anthony Appolonia, a Monmouth County man who confessed to torturing and killing at least 14 cats, Amato, the arresting officer, says he teamed with the prosecutor's office to amass evidence. Prosecutors located and interviewed every individual who gave Appolonia an animal. "That takes time," he says. "The average officer doesn't have that kind of time because he's got other crimes to deal with."

     The HSUS marks another important place to turn when presented with animal crime. The organization assists law enforcement as needed, especially in animal fighting cases, an area Schindler says officers often lack experience. HSUS officials help officers compile cases and identify and gather evidence for search warrants.

     The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) also can be called upon. (See www.aspca.org.) The organization cross-trained its disaster response teams to offer smaller jurisdictions assistance in large animal cruelty cases. "The goal of the ASPCA is to have more veterinarians trained to do what I do in different regions, so that we can be more available to the jurisdictions that need us," Merck explains.

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