Using Veterinary Forensics to Support Investigation and Prosecution Efforts: An Interview with Dr. Melinda Merck

Most people agree that people who abuse animals are cruel. But there's an evolving line of thinking that by looking at these crimes against animals, sometimes you can also make a connection to other crimes — against people or property — like domestic violence, child abuse, arson or even murder.

Animal abuse and other crimes against animals are often the seeds that grow into far more serious crimes.  For example, 50% of rapists and one-third of child molesters say they abused animals in their youth. Half of convicted rapists and a third of child molesters reported committing animal abuse during childhood or adolescence. A Chicago Police Department study “revealed a startling propensity for offenders charged with crimes against animals to commit other violent offenses toward human victims.” Further, "a survey of women in domestic-violence shelters indicated that 71% had partners who abused or threatened to abuse pets."

 

Be sure to join us for this recorded webinar, when Dr. Merck will:

  • discuss how animal cruelty investigations can support other types of cases,
  • review the potential use of animal-related evidence and how it can be important to the investigation and prosecution of other types of crimes,
  • and share the recognition of critical evidence, the application of human forensics and case discussion will be presented.

 

Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Let’s start from the beginning. Most of our audience has probably not heard of using Veterinary Forensics in “human” legal investigations or prosecutions. How did you start making the connection between the two? How did this get started?

Melinda:  It started when Georgia passed a new law making animal cruelty a felony in 2000. I joined a new group, Georgia Legal Professionals for Animals, whose mission was to provide free training to attorneys, investigators and veterinarians on how to investigate and prosecute these cases. I was tasked with providing lectures on what to look for at the crime scenes and animal evidence. When I started researching the topic, there was little to no publications. So, I reached out to the local and state ME’s and they allowed me to collaborate and learn from them. I attended trainings on human forensic topics to learn as much as I could then sift through what could be applied to animal cases. The animal cruelty investigator I worked with was actually a certified CSI so together we were able to advance our knowledge. The majority of homes in the U.S. have animals. This means there is a high likelihood of animal evidence being found at crime scenes involving humans. This can provide a critical link for a case.

 

 

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I am inspired by the people I work with on these cases.

It takes everyone – the investigator, the prosecution team – to make a successful case.

What we do matters – it protects animals and society.

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JCH: In many ways, it makes so much sense… That there is a connection between animal abuse and human crimes such as domestic violence, murder – but you’ve even found connections between animal cruelty and arson, pedophilia and drugs. How did you come up with this connection? What made it so obvious to you?

Melinda: The cases I have worked on have almost always had some other type of criminal activity or offense involved -either concurrently or a past history. Animal cruelty does not occur in a vacuum. There is a link between child sexual abuse and sexual abuse of animals. There seems to be a link between dog fighting and child abuse – in addition to the link with drugs and illegal firearms. I have had several arson cases involving animals as a victim in addition to the property damage. Now we see that the National Sheriff’s Association as well as the FBI has recognized this connection and support the investigation and reporting of these crimes to NIBRS.

 

 

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The majority of homes in the U.S. have animals.

This means there is a high likelihood of animal evidence being found at crime scenes involving humans.

This can provide a critical link for a case.

~~~~~

 

 

JCH: For those who may not be aware, what are some of the trends that you’ve found that connect animal cruelty with the likelihood to commit more serious crimes?

Melinda: There are many research publications on this link. There are also publications on the person's likelihood to commit other offenses – something that is now being monitored more by the FBI. There will be more data coming with the recent more formalized reporting and more data on convicted offenders and their status after release. I know that in the first felony animal cruelty conviction case in Atlanta involving the burning of a dog, the perpetrator, Victor James Goodman, was indicted for murder 5 years later.

 

JCH: What drew you to this line of work? What keeps you inspired to do this work in light of some of the horrible things you’ve seen?

Melinda: I have always loved solving mysteries – one of the reasons I love veterinary medicine. I also believe in doing the right thing. As veterinarians, we have to be the voice for our patients, for the animals we serve. If not us, then who? I am inspired by the people I work with on these cases. It takes everyone – the investigator, the prosecution team – to make a successful case. What we do matters – it protects animals and society.

 

 

~~~~~

Animal cruelty does not occur in a vacuum.

There is a link between child sexual abuse and sexual abuse of animals.

~~~~~

 

JCH: Without giving away the whole webinar, how can prosecutors and investigators begin to incorporate this line of thinking into their work processes and how can their cases benefit?

Melinda: They need to be aware of the potential for animal evidence in all of their cases. They need to learn more about veterinary forensics, what is the possible impact, testing available and how it can impact their cases. There are also agencies that will help them by way of legal support and financial support for forensic experts or testing. They need to identify veterinarians that can assist them – locally or nationally. There are trainings and other resources available to help veterinarians learn about veterinary forensics.

 

Click Here to Watch "Using Veterinary Forensics to Support Investigation and Prosecution Efforts."

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