First students graduate from new certificate program in veterinary forensic science


Lisa Shriver, a consultant for Rural Area Veterinary Services, cuddles a puppy. She recently completed the forensic certificate. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Shriver)

Lisa Shriver, a consultant for Rural Area Veterinary Services, cuddles a puppy. She recently completed the forensic certificate. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Shriver)

By Rebecca Burton

Police officers investigating an animal cruelty case may overlook the junk pile of clamps and wires in the garage that are typically used to train dogs for fights. Others may not realize the treadmill in the living room is used more by the abused canine than the household occupants.

Traditional law enforcement officers may not know all of the signs to look for in animal cases, and the University of Florida is trying to solve that problem.

The UF College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Medicine’s Maples Center for Forensic Medicine is training a new batch of crime scene investigators. These forensic scientists still analyze blood stains and DNA. They still testify in court.

But, they may analyze paw prints more often than fingerprints.

The first five students have just graduated from a brand new certificate program for veterinary forensic science. The program is the first of its kind in the country, and as far as the center’s associate director,  Dr. Jason H. Byrd, knows, the only certificate program for animal forensics in the world.

Students in the online certificate program took classes in animal crime scene processing, legal principles of forensic evidence and veterinary forensic pathology, among others. The goal of the program is to create experts who can testify for abused animals that can’t, and have hard evidence to back their cases.

Byrd said a lot of what is taught is the same science used in human crime scenes, but there is also some evidence that is unique to animals, such as certain types of bite sores and paraphernalia.

“The science is the same. Someone is going to be prosecuted so you want to make sure your analysis is correct,” said Byrd, who also worked on the infamous Michael Vick dog fighting case.

Using forensic science in animal cases is not new, but until now there had never been an academic program to formally train veterinarians. Because of this, a credibility issue often arose in court when veterinarians tried to present evidence.

“They would be asked, ‘where did you get your forensic science training?’” Byrd explained. “That was problematic for them, so we decided to have something there that would be from an academic institution, on their transcript, that would be able to bolster their testimony in court. That’s why we ended up starting a graduate certificate.”

Byrd attended school at the University of Florida when William Maples was still a professor, and he worked in his lab. In the process, Byrd would help Maples out with a lot of cases on endangered and poached species. After he graduated and got his own practice, he continued to help wildlife officers out with animal cases and was eventually approached by law enforcement officials who needed help in domestic animal cruelty cases.

Because of the high demand, Byrd and Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for forensic sciences and anticruelty projects of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, felt the best solution would be to create a formal academic program.

“We realized that UF would be the best partner for moving this forward because it had a strong commitment to veterinary medicine, particularly shelter medicine as well as expertise in forensics and that was particularly the blend of resources we were looking for,” Lockwood said.

Dr. Patricia Norris, the only full-time sheriff’s veterinarian in the U.S., was one of the recent graduates of the certificate program. She said she uses what she learned in her courses everyday on her job.

“We had a case just a couple weeks ago where an animal suffered a gunshot,” Norris said. “Using what I got from the forensic pathology class, I could figure out trajectory.”

Norris has been working on these types of cases for years, but until the certificate program started, she said she relied on her knowledge of medicine combined with her intuition.

“Basically, you were left with your common sense and common sense plus education is a whole lot better than just plain common sense,” Norris said.

She also recalled a case before the program in which she was called to testify in court.

“The dissent went nuts because they said I wasn’t certified in that area,” Norris said. “If you want to get in this field you must take this program, you must go for the certificate because what you will learn can be the make or break point for your case.”

Byrd is currently working on forms to begin a full-fledged master’s program and his goal is to have it up and running by August 2014. Norris said she will be sure to have her name on the list.

Lockwood said expanding the program will meet the growing needs of these specialized experts in district attorney’s offices.

“I think fortunately one of the areas that seems to be a little more resistant to budget cuts is law enforcement, so certainly having forensically- trained vets will be a valuable addition to any department,” Lockwood said.

Byrd said although the program’s main audience is geared toward vets, students from other areas of medicine are welcome to take the classes as electives.

“People in the human forensic sciences can learn a little bit about the unique science of animals and then easily work between fields.”

Lockwood said that animal cruelty charges a decade ago usually resulted in a misdemeanor, but now someone who commits this crime can be charged with a felony. Because the stakes are higher, the credibility of the animal forensic experts is even more important.

“The quality of the evidence, the quality of the reporting and the quality of the analysis has to be at a much higher level than five years ago,” Lockwood said. “Therefore, veterinarians are essential to the successful investigation documentation and prosecution of animal cruelty cases.”


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