Vets learn how to sniff out animal crimes


Veterinarian Amie Burling, left, and fourth-year vet student Jenna Rooks, right, participate in a workshop by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the University of Florida's Center for Forensic Medicine at the Austin Carey Memorial Forest in Gainesville on Sept. 12.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 2:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 2:50 p.m.

The veterinarian squatted down on the forest floor, carefully sweeping away a pile of dirt to get a better look at the animal remains.

Decked out in trousers, a work shirt and bandana, Dr. Laura Niestat seemed a long way from her New York City practice as she swatted bugs and endured the muggy Florida weather earlier this month.

But Niestat ignored the elements, concentrating instead on the task before her, mapping out and detailing a possible crime scene.

The vet, from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Animal Hospital in New York, was among the participants in an animal forensics workshop Sept. 11-13 hosted by the University of Florida's William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine and the ASPCA.

The six veterinarians and one student who gathered in UF's Austin Cary Memorial Forest along Waldo Road came to learn how to process crime scenes, recover physical evidence, find animal graves and examine animal remains.

The annual workshop, which began in 2009, is a pioneering effort for the field of veterinary medicine, said Dr. Jason H. Byrd, director of education for ASPCA and assistant director of UF's forensics program.

The program is part of a $2 million initiative by the ASPCA to improve education for veterinarians so they can better help law enforcement investigators solve crimes involving animals, from dog fighting to hoarding.

Amanda Fitch, forensic analyst for the ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences program at UF, said the workshop is the nation's first in an educational setting.

Fitch and Byrd say that while cases of animal cruelty are not necessarily rising, awareness is.

"I hope this program spreads to other schools and trains vets to become part of animal crime investigations when they're needed," Fitch said.

Animal forensics is a fairly new field that is growing, said Jessica Lauginiger, an Alachua County Animal Services investigator for eight years.

She attended the workshop last year and said she learned a lot about how to document a scene with photos and mapping since her cases usually involve live animals. She explained mapping as re-creating the scene with anything from rough sketches to a series of measurements on graph paper.

"You want to mirror the scene either to give an image to a judge or jury for a court case or if you're just writing a report for the State Attorney's Office," Lauginiger said.

Back in the forest, senior UF vet student Jenna Rooks knelt down with a sketchbook in hand near one of the yellow evidence markers for the embalmed critters and began mapping.

"I like the hands-on experience," she said.

Amie Burling, a resident in shelter medicine at UF, said she appreciated the practical experience. "We never get exposure to this sort of environment in veterinary school," she said, "and expectations are rising for those in the field."

Byrd travels all over Florida and occasionally across the country for ASPCA cases. Other times, he does the work over the phone, guiding investigators and vets on how to process animal crime scenes.

Out of the 10 calls Byrd typically gets each month, one or two call for a road trip, he said.

He recalled a trip to Miami last year for a case that took an unexpected turn once the forensics played out. "We thought it was cat mutilation but turns out the city had a coyote problem," he said.

The aim is to have law enforcement rely less on specialized animal forensic investigators like him and more on trained local resources, he said.

"We're trying to put ourselves out of a job," Byrd joked.

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