The C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, on the campus of the University of Florida at Gainesville, is one of the busiest forensic laboratories in the world. Sprawling, brashly-lit, with an array of human skeletal remains meticulously arranged atop rows of shiny metal tables, the lab has long been enlisted for help in crime-scene investigations, archeological digs and identifying the victims of disasters -- including those of Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. One newly established table at the C.A. Pound, however, stands out from the rest. It contains the skeletal remains of animals: the victims, one might call them, of humankind’s frequent and fervent inhumanity to the non-human.
“This is my evidence here,” Dr. Melinda Merck said one afternoon last spring, pointing to a tabletop array of recently cleaned canine skeletons. “It’s part of an investigation into a suspected dog-fighting operation in Georgia. In most cases of animal cruelty that I deal with, the bodies are not fresh. They’re discarded and decomposed. They’re hidden. And so the advanced post-mortem stage is where we forensic vets really need to become more expert.”
Merck, a fast-talking, no-nonsense dynamo with a full head of wavy brown hair, is something of a crusader in the emerging field of veterinary forensics. She is senior director of veterinary forensics at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the “captain” of its new mobile C.S.I. unit. In that role, she conducts frequent on-site investigations into suspected animal-cruelty cases (the analysis, for example, of the dog remains recovered from the mass graves found in 2007 on the property of NFL quarterback Michael Vick), and she regularly testifies at animal-cruelty trials across the country. Now, as the recently appointed director of the University of Florida’s new Veterinary Forensics Medicine Sciences program, the first of its kind at a major U.S. university, she is training young veterinary students in the same techniques that human crime-scene investigators learn: forensic entomology (determining the time of an animal’s injury or death by the types of insects around them), bloodstain-pattern and bite-mark analysis, and forensic osteology (the study of bones and bone fragments).
“I love being around bones,” Merck said, waving her hand toward the room. “There is a lot of information in them, and we have the collaborative effort of a lot of bigwig forensic specialists down here to help us find out what we need to know.”
The very fact that one of the leading human forensic labs in the world has now allocated part of its facility to a veterinarian speaks volumes about the greater urgency and gravity with which law enforcement now treats animal-cruelty cases. Such matters were long the province of local ASPCA and humane-society organizations. But with mounting evidence connecting acts of animal cruelty to a broader nexus of violent crimes against humans, including spousal and child abuse, everyone from police officers to neighborhood dog catchers and local vets are now being enlisted in the effort to prosecute and, when possible, prevent animal-cruelty crimes.
It’s a shift in perspective that Merck has been fighting for since receiving an oddly urgent phone call from the Atlanta police some 20 years ago asking for help in a case involving a very sick dog -- “a good Samaritan, and a savvy vet,” Merck recalled. A local Atlanta contractor had pulled up to a house one morning where he was to perform some work. As he got out of his truck, he heard a dog screaming from the house next door, went to investigate, and saw through an open garage door a dog dragging its back legs and a woman standing beside it. The woman instantly began pleading to the contractor that the dog needed to be euthanized but said she couldn’t afford the vet bills. The contractor offered to take the dog to his vet, who, upon examining the dog, agreed that it was too debilitated to save. He then took the contractor aside, told him there was something fishy about the situation and that he was going to report it to the police. The police, in turn, contacted Merck, who was doing volunteer work at the time for an animal-services agency in addition to her newly established practice.
“They asked me to perform a necropsy on the euthanized dog,” Merck recalled. “It turns out the animal was paralyzed from having been beaten so often. I reported what I found. The police went to the woman’s house to question her. When the husband answered the door, the officers noticed a badly bruised boy standing in the front hallway. And just like that they were hauling off both parents in handcuffs for child abuse. So this was a classic case of the system working like it should.”
The most common dynamic behind the majority of animal abuse cases that Merck has dealt with involves a man abusing a family pet to gain control over and/or exact revenge against other family members. It’s a frighteningly persistent and effective tactic: In a 1997 survey of 48 of the nation’s largest shelters for victims of domestic violence and child abuse, more than 85 percent of the shelters documented that the women who came in reported incidents of animal abuse in their homes; 63 percent of shelters said that children reported the same. In a separate study, more than a quarter of battered women reported that they had either delayed leaving abusive relationships or begrudgingly returned to them out of fear for the wellbeing of the family pet. The problem has become so pervasive that a number of shelters across the country have now developed “safe-haven” programs that offer refuge for abused pets as well as people, in order that both can be freed from the cycle of intimidation and violence.
Merck, for her part, has made it her personal mission to urge students and practicing vets around the country, to whom she frequently lectures on veterinary forensics, to report suspicious cases to authorities. She also gives talks to criminal investigators, prosecutors and judges nationwide about the often grisly details of animal-abuse crimes, everything from thermal injuries (immolation, baking, microwaving), blunt-force trauma, asphyxiation, drowning, poisoning, ritual murders and sexual assault.
“A lot of the work I do,” Merck said, “involves not just talking to vets but reaching out to law enforcement to make them more knowledgeable, because it’s often hard for them to even consider that people would do such things.”
Merck’s awareness-raising efforts seem to be paying off. A number of communities across the country now cross-train social service and animal-control agencies on how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In many states, new laws now mandate that veterinarians notify the police if they sense something suspicious about the condition of the animals they treat. California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse, and it is currently considering a bill in the state Legislature that would list animal abusers on the same type of online registry as sex offenders and arsonists.
“When I started out as a vet 20 years ago,” Merck told me, “I was one of the few who would call if I got a suspicious case, and that was when such things were still a misdemeanor and no law enforcement got involved. Now, with veterinarians, I tell them it is their responsibility to report--that they cannot not report. Because you don’t know that what you’re seeing on the animal isn’t the proverbial tip of the iceberg.”
Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”