Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Animal Forensics

Sandra Parshall

"Will I have to testify?"
Even thieves and murderers often have pets at home, and if they aren’t careful their beloved Fido or Fluffy can help send them to prison. Recent advances in DNA testing have made pet hair a valuable weapon in a prosecutor’s arsenal, and it’s being introduced in a growing number of court cases.

We’ve all heard that every criminal leaves something at a crime scene and takes something away. While dog or cat hair alone won’t lead police to a previously unknown perpetrator, it can clinch the case against someone who is suspected of a crime and can’t explain why his pet’s hair is at a murder scene or hair from the victim’s pet is on his clothing. The Denver, Colorado, district attorney’s website has a list of major cases in which nonhuman DNA, most often that of pets, has played a decisive role.

In a few instances where people have appealed convictions for crimes committed before the widespread use of DNA testing, the move has backfired because prosecutors were able to use new technology on old evidence – animal hair found at the crime scenes – and match it to the defendants’ pets. When Wayne Williams, the Atlanta child killer, appealed his conviction, prosecutors ordered tests on hairs found on his victims, and the tests revealed that the hairs came from Williams’s dog. His appeal was denied.

Forensic evidence has also become important in fighting crimes against animals, and some experts specialize in this branch of science. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the University of Florida have created the first veterinary forensic sciences program at a major university to train crime scene investigators to gather and evaluate evidence in crimes against animals. The ASPCA has its own forensic veterinarians, who examine and testify about ballistic, toxicology, and blood spatter evidence in abuse cases. The Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California at Davis has the largest database of domesticated animal DNA in the country, and each year its scientists examine evidence in up to 200 cases involving abuse of animals by humans, animal-on-animal attacks, animal attacks on humans, and other cases in which animal hair might yield clues.

In 2010, the ASPCA, in conjunction with several state SPCA organizations, broadened its campaign against illegal dogfighting by creating a national database of fighting dog DNA. Called Canine CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the database will be maintained at UC-Davis and will contain samples from animals rescued from fighting operations. By identifying links between dogs, owners, breeders, and fighting sites, Canine CODIS can help law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. clamp down on a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise that kills and maims thousands of animals every year. I mention the database briefly in my latest mystery, Under the Dog Star. You can read more about it here
In short, the animals who share our lives now have their own branch of forensic science. Should we expect a new CSI television show focusing on animals? What do you think it might be called?


Leslie Budewitz said...

Sandy, this is fascinating! Not sure that animal forensics could support an entire series, but it would be a good addition to the mix other methods of forensic investigation.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree. Fascinating subject that would make a good series. I have no idea what it might be called, but I'm sure millions of pet owners would tune in, including myself. Thanks for sharing.

Sandra Parshall said...

By the time I can get around to writing it, somebody else will have claimed it... I have considered letting my veterinarian protagonist Rachel go through the training so she could be an active investigator in some cases.

Nancy Means Wright said...

Sandra, this is a most intriguing post on a subject I'd previously given little thought to. Now I take a long look at my two hairy Maine Coon cats and am certain that no burglar will get away from my house without a bunch of tell-tale fur on his/her pants. An extra helping of leftover turkey tonight for my feline defenders!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sandy, cool idea to send Rachel through the training. Lots of potential for future plots/subplots, and conflict with those near as well as the not-so-dear!

carl brookins said...

Good stuff, Sandra. We all need to stay reasonably current with the expanding forensics universe.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Never considered it before but I guess I wouldn't get away with committing a crime since my Cavaliers shed enough that I proudly wear their hair on my clothes. Fun post, Sandy!

Marilyn Levinson said...

I'd love an animal CSI series. I bet lots of people would, too.

Anonymous said...

How about two series, one of cats and one of dogs. When the forensics info isn't sufficient, cover stories of pets saving their humans like the cat that smelled gas and didn't let his/her human go in the house and so forth. I'm alive thanks to my late chihuahua as I have said before & my current cat let(s) me know when someone was in the yard. I suspect there would be a zillion stories.

Titles. Maybe: Catshow? Dogshow?