Many people have seen dramatizations of forensics on shows likes Bones and CSI. Forensics is the application of scientific principles and methods to criminal investigations at crimes scenes and in labs.
In real life, forensic science is being applied to different victims: animals.
At the urging of Beverly McEwen, animal pathologist and adjunct faculty in the Animal Health Laboratory at the University of Guelph, I attended the 12th Annual International Veterinary Forensic Sciences conference. This is not the sort of place you would expect to find a labour scholar.
I was introduced to the role animal forensics plays in cruelty investigations through studying the partnership between the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the New York Police Department. A New York prosecutor told me that the forensic investigations undertaken by the ASPCA’s Robert Reisman and his team are invaluable.
Some U.S. veterinary schools are beginning to better integrate forensics into their curriculum and graduate-level specializations are offered. The University of California, Davis Veterinary School has a DNA lab which can identify details to help solve animal crimes.
There has even been direct public investment into veterinary forensics as more U.S. legislators recognize the role it plays in protecting wild animals and endangered species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Oregon is the world’s first — and hopefully not last — publicly funded facility focused on crimes against wild animals.
The global shift
Globally, a growing number of veterinarians are forging partnerships with law enforcement and key criminal justice figures to create the collaborations needed for integrated training and investigations.
From the United Kingdom to Taiwan, people are looking at the risks animal cruelty poses to animals, people and public safety. Some jurisdictions are creating task forces and investing in prevention and prosecution, including through animal forensics.
Forensic veterinarians maintain a commitment to objectivity in their methods. When they write reports and testify, they are clear about what can and cannot be substantiated from the evidence. This careful attention to detail and rigour builds trust and public confidence.
I am still processing a lot of the disturbing and deeply painful material that was covered at the conference. I don’t fully understand how some people find the strength to do these investigations, but I am grateful they do.
This is powerfully illustrated by Martha Smith-Blackmore, a forensic expert who has created The Animal Doe Project. This initiative raises funds to cover the basic costs of providing veterinary investigations when unnamed, stray and otherwise unknown animals are harmed or killed. This is a moving example of how ethics and science can be symbiotic. All animals deserve to live without abuse and suffering, whether they have been given names or not.
But for something as serious as animal abuse, we need more than charity. Animal cruelty is an urgent public safety matter that deserves the careful attention of our law enforcement and political leaders.
We can’t all be forensic veterinarians, but we need more people who can and will be. And we can all support robust, well-resourced animal cruelty investigations.
Kendra Coulter, Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence; Chair of the Labour Studies Department; Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists; Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, Brock University