CSI [with fur]
UF has country’s first certificate program for veterinary forensic science
By Rebecca Burton
Police officers investigating an animal cruelty case may overlook the junk pile of clamps and wires in the garage that are typically used to train dogs for fights. Others may not realize the treadmill in the living room is used more by the abused canine than the household occupants.
Traditional law enforcement officers may not know all of the signs to look for in animal cases, and UF is trying to solve that problem.
The UF College of Medicine is training a new batch of crime scene investigators. These forensic scientists still analyze blood stains and DNA . They still testify in court.
But, they may analyze paw prints more often than fingerprints.
In the spring, the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine graduated its first class of five students from a brand new certificate program for veterinary forensic science. The program i s t he fi rst o f i ts k ind i n t he country, and as far as the center’s associate director, Jason H. Byrd, Ph.D., knows, the only certificate program for animal forensics in the world.
Students in the online certificate program take classes in animal crime scene processing, legal principles of forensic evidence and veterinary forensic pathology, among others. The goal of the program is to create experts who can testify for abused animals that can’t and produce hard evidence to back their cases.
Byrd said a lot of what is taught is the same science used in human crime scenes, but there is also some evidence that is unique to animals, such as certain types of bite sores and paraphernalia.
“The science is the same. Someone is going to be prosecuted so you want to make sure your analysis is correct,” said Byrd, who also worked on the infamous Michael Vick dogfighting case.
Using forensic science in animal cases is not new, but until now there has never been an academic program to formally train veterinarians. Because of this, a credibility issue often arose in court when veterinarians tried to present evidence.
“They would be asked, ‘Where did you get your forensic science training?’” Byrd explained. “That was problematic for them, so we decided to have something there that would be from an academic institution, on their transcript, that would be able to bolster their testimony in court. That’s why we ended up starting a graduate certificate.”
Because of the high demand for animal forensic services, Byrd and Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for forensic sciences and anticruelty projects of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, felt the best solution would be to create a formal academic program.
Patricia Norris, D.V.M., the only full-time sheriff’s veterinarian in the U.S., was one of the recent graduates of the certificate program. She said she uses what she learned in her courses every day on her job.
Norris has been working on these types of cases for years, but until the certificate program started, she said she relied on her knowledge of medicine combined with her intuition. During one case prior to earning her certificate, the defense used her lack of certification against her.
“If you want to get in this field you must take this program, you must go for the certificate because what you will learn can be the make or break point for your case,” she said.