These Animal Specialists Do Work Most Could Never Do

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

veterinary forensics

Story at-a-glance -

  • The specialty known as veterinary forensic medicine deals with, among other things, animal victims of abuse and neglect
  • On the frontlines investigating suspected cases of abuse and rescuing victims are animal cruelty officers, who also very often encounter domestic abuse in all its forms
  • In a nutshell, the job of a forensic veterinarian is to identify, collect and assess evidence from animals and their environment

Most of us are familiar with the field of forensics, defined as “the application of scientific principles and methods to criminal investigations at crimes scenes and in labs,”1 through exposure to TV shows and movies, where virtually all the victims of crime are humans. But what many of you may not know is there’s also a specialty within the profession called veterinary forensic medicine, in which the victims are animals.

“In circumstances where the animal is the victim …” writes John Cooper and Margaret Cooper in Veterinary Practice, “legal cases generally fall into four categories.”2

  1. The animal has died under unusual, unexpected or suspicious circumstances and is investigated with a view to determining the circumstances — that is, the cause, mechanism and manner — of death
  2. The animal is alive but exhibits unusual, unexpected or suspicious clinical signs or is injured or incapacitated under unusual or suspicious circumstances
  3. The animal’s welfare apparently is, or has been, compromised. In these cases, there is a need to determine whether an animal is being (or has been) subjected to unnecessary pain, suffering, discomfort or distress
  4. A non-domesticated animal appears to have been taken, killed or kept in captivity unlawfully — a form of wildlife crime

On the Front Lines

Before veterinary forensics specialists get involved in cases of abuse, those cases must be investigated, which often also involves rescuing animals. As author Kendra Coulter writes in The Conversation:

“The cases of animal cruelty that receive media coverage shock, disturb and infuriate us. If images or footage are included, many of us simply cannot look, because we find it too horrific. But some people not only have to look, but also to listen, touch, document and, when possible, rescue the animals themselves, continuously.”3

It’s important to acknowledge the dedicated people on the frontlines, such as undercover investigators, photojournalists, police officers and animal welfare workers, who are doing jobs most of us could never do.

In the course of their investigations, animal cruelty officers also encounter child abuse, elder abuse and intimate-partner abuse, all of which go hand-in-hand with violence against animals. “This amplifies the emotional difficulties of cruelty investigations work as well as its importance,” writes Coulter.

There are also physical risks to animal cruelty officers along with the emotional challenges of the work. Many officers operate in the field alone and may lack reliable communication tools. Many are women, whereas most animal abusers are men. It’s not unusual for officers to be harassed, threatened and assaulted.

Typical Tasks Associated With Veterinary Forensics Work

Once a cruelty investigation turns up victims, the forensics work begins. Handling a forensics case involving animals can involve a variety of techniques:4

Examination and assessment of the alleged crime; interviewing people who are, or are believed to be, involved in the incident or may have relevant information

Examination of live animals

Examination of dead animals

Examination of the environment

Collection and identification of specimens, including derivatives and samples, for laboratory testing

Correct storage and dispatch of specimens for laboratory testing and presentation of evidence

Laboratory tests

Production of report(s)

Appearance in court

Retention of reference material for further court proceedings or for reference

The handling and presentation of forensic evidence in animal cruelty cases must be scientific and objective, since it is likely at some point to be presented in a report as well as a court of law.

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A Day in the Life of a Forensic Veterinarian

Dr. Rachel Touroo is Director of Veterinary Forensics at the ASPCA. As she explains it, the job of a forensic veterinarian is to “identify, collect and assess evidence from animals and their environment.”5

Touroo uses her medical knowledge as a veterinarian to examine cases of animal cruelty so that she can answer law enforcement questions and testify in court in an unbiased and objective manner. During her testimony, she often plays the role of teacher, explaining the evidence to help the judge and/or jury understand it. As you might expect, there are no “typical workdays” in Touroo’s profession:

“It’s rare for any two days to be alike in my line of work,” she explains. “One day I could be at a crime scene examining live roosters allegedly used in organized fighting. The next day I could be in the lab at the University of Florida performing a necropsy (animal autopsy) on a cat with blunt or sharp force trauma to determine if the injury was intentional or accidental.

Frequently, I can also be found in my office drafting a forensic veterinary statement of my findings from the latest case, or in a classroom teaching third-year veterinary students how to look for signs of intentional cruelty. I’m also called upon to testify as an expert witness in cases across the country.”6

Touroo’s background was in animal welfare, and once she was in private practice as a veterinarian, she felt a tug to return to her original calling. She accepted a newly created animal welfare position in Virginia for a veterinarian to focus on puppy mills and animal fighting in the state. “I had no idea what veterinary forensic sciences was when I accepted the position,” said Touroo, “but I quickly found myself immersed in the discipline.” Asked how she stays positive in a job that seems unbearably sad, Touroo replied:

“While I love what I do, it is disheartening to know this job is necessary. I choose to focus on the impact we have and the positive outcomes. It’s incredibly uplifting to see an animal rescued from abuse and neglect find a loving home. If I had my way, I would put myself out of work, but until that time comes, I’m proud to be a voice for these victims.”

All of us who love animals and can’t bear even the thought of the abuse so many endure, owe an enormous debt of gratitude to people like animal cruelty officers and forensic veterinarians. These special souls have chosen careers in which every day they face the darkness the rest of us turn away from.