Animal investigators

Animal investigators

A UF, ASPCA program is working to train experts in the art of solving animal crimes

By Michelle Champalanne

It was a muggy afternoon, typical of a mid-September day in North Florida. The beaming sun streaked through the trees and mosquitoes tickled ankles and ears. On top of the fallen leaves and pine needles lay elements of an animal crime scene.

For six years now, people around the nation have been traveling to Gainesville to participate in the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine’s animal crime scene workshop. The three-day event teaches students how to properly identify a crime scene, collect evidence and investigate the scene.

Jason H. Byrd, Ph.D., a forensic entomologist and associate director for the Maples Center, established the workshop in 2009 after requests from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for an animal forensics education program. The annual event has been a success and fueled the motivation to start the first veterinary forensic science online education program in the U.S., established at UF in 2012.

“We’ve had people take what they’ve learned and apply it immediately to their job the next day,” he said.

Byrd, a UF alumnus, studied with William R. Maples, Ph.D., an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of forensic anthropology.

Maples was well-known for his extensive research background and involvement with high-profile forensic cases, including studies on President Zachary Taylor and the 1990 Gainesville student murders. In 1999, the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine was established at UF, through the colleges of Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, and Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“I was raised in an environment where animal case work was treated the same as humans,” he said. “We designed workshops based around what we know in the human forensic sciences and tailored it for a veterinarian or an animal enforcement officer.”

During the workshop, students needed to properly collect evidence and investigate the animal crime scene using the information from the morning lectures. One of the students, Linda Fielder, traveled from Oregon, where she works as an investigations manager at the Oregon Humane Society. She, along with three co-workers, received a grant from the ASPCA to attend this workshop.

“We’re always looking for ways to strengthen cases,” she said. “The last thing you want to do is mess up evidence.”

Fielder suggested this type of investigation could be beneficial for dogfighting cases where investigators need strong evidence of animal abuse. Her partner in the workshop, Travell Young, a senior animal enforcement officer from Baltimore, agreed.

“Many judges don’t take these cases as seriously, so you need perfect evidence to back everything up,” he said.

Because of demand, these workshops have grown into a robust online education program provided by the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and ASPCA. Now, Byrd oversees online master’s degree and graduate certificate programs that attract students from around the world. In addition, a fellowship was established in veterinary forensic medicine.

“It all started from how I was trained to do casework back from when I was a student here,” Byrd said.