Forensics utilized in animal abuse crackdown

Adam Leath, southeast regional director of field investigations and response for the ASPCA, poses in his office located in the University of Florida Veterinary Clinical Services building Friday, May 17, 2013.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 5:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 5:14 p.m.

Florida has a lot of cockfighting. In the Carolinas, it’s puppy mills. Cats? How’s 700 in a Madison County “sanctuary” for you?

Adam Leath deals with the ugliness of animal abuse daily, operating out of a closet-sized office as the Gainesville-based southeast regional director of investigations and response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) since late 2011.

But he hopes through his work that more people who abuse or neglect animals will pay for their crimes.

“Law enforcement, just by virtue of the fact that some of these cases are very specific and unique, needs help. The same goes for animal control,” Leath said. “I can help them look for signs of abuse and neglect, and also bring about enough probable cause to aid them in drafting a warrant. We can also help them document that scene, get the elements or evidence necessary to prove or disprove the elements in state statute.”

As the way people view animals evolves, law enforcement agencies are evolving in their response to allegations of mistreatment.

Many people now view their pets as family members and are less tolerant of abuse or neglect. That is carrying over to livestock as well. In 2009, a Hawthorne farmer was charged with animal cruelty after complaints about the condition of his cattle led to an investigation by the Sheriff’s Office.

Sadie Darnell, who was a career Gainesville police officer before her election as Alachua County sheriff, has experienced the evolution on the job.

“At lunchtime, one of our lieutenants on patrol called in about a puppy that was left in a car downtown. He heard it whimpering. They called Animal Services and tried to find the owner,” Darnell said. “That’s an indication of how in tune our deputies are to the issues of animal abuse. We have gained some training and education in bloodsport — the fighting of dogs and roosters.”

Darnell added that some deputies also got training detecting mistreatment of livestock that was as nuanced as examining muscle ratios in horses and cattle to determine if they are malnourished.

While law enforcement in general may be more willing to pursue animal investigations, the experience and ability to develop a case that will hold up in prosecution may be lacking. That’s where Leath comes in.

Leath’s expertise can help agencies determine if an investigation is worth pursuing and help officers collect evidence that may otherwise be overlooked. He can also provide expert testimony in court and provide training to agencies.

In the 2012 case of the Caboodle Ranch cat sanctuary in Madison County, for instance, Leath found that the owner had veterinary records for about 100 of the 700 cats. The fact that so many cats had no record of veterinary care was evidence of neglect, he said.

As a consultant to law enforcement on the case, Leath helped make the logistical arrangements for the seizure of the 700 cats — no small undertaking.

Leath said he did similar work in a Florida cockfighting operation in which nearly 700 roosters were seized.

“The standards in animal welfare cases are changing. The investigative techniques used in a homicide case or a burglary case really are no different than the principles that should be applied in animal cruelty cases,” Leath said. “People want to see the suspect linked to a particular crime ... So where would they send their DNA evidence? Where would they get the expertise needed to look into dogfighting?”

Animal services agencies that do have experience in abuse and neglect also use the expertise of Leath and the ASPCA, which also has a forensic veterinarian based in Gainesville.

Vernon Sawyer, director of Alachua County Animal Services, said Leath has worked with staff on an animal abuse case that is still underway.

“The case involved cruelty to some cats and the ASPCA was awesome — the tools and the people they have at their disposal,” Sawyer said. “They have also provided training for us. When you call them for assistance, they bring all of those tools with them. Their experience in cruelty cases makes them experts, especially when it comes time to testifying before a judge.”

Leath said the public can help by reporting suspected abuse or neglect to authorities.

And people who can no longer keep an animal should ask a lot of questions of a facility or person before handing that animal over, to avoid hoarding situations.

“Report abuse when you see it. Know who to call,” Leath said. “And make informed decisions with your animals or when getting additional pets.”

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