Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Animal forensics

Veterinarians play a key role in recognizing and addressing animal abuse

Until recently, national awareness of the seriousness of animal abuse has been abysmal. This has been reflected by the relatively scant legal protections for animals as well as the often comical punishments for convicted felons of animal abuse where a finger slap has been all the law could muster.

Veterinary training in forensics and animal abuse has been equally meager and is due to many factors. Among the most salient reasons for this historically low emphasis in detecting animal cruelty and pursuing investigative animal forensics include two important factors.

First, society as a whole is only just now coming to grips with the serious link between animal cruelty and domestic violence. The veterinary and legal communities have been hampered by the relatively light punishments against perpetrators as well as the fear of potential legal retribution by accused abusers against medical examiners.

This is changing as animal cruelty laws now carry a felony sentence in 41 states and many of them- but not all- includes immunity clauses that protect veterinarians from civil and criminal liability when reporting animal abuse. Indeed, this will become increasingly important as veterinarians are now being required to report suspicions of animal abuse to the proper authorities.

Second, veterinarians form client bonds essentially from a “feel good” point of view, where the human/animal bond is held in a positive light that anybody can partake of. It is not hard to understand then that suspicion of abuse is typically rather low on the differential list of many veterinarians. This makes it more difficult to correlate signs of abuse to the owners, especially when dealing with varying levels of possible neglect.

In general, veterinary doctors are mostly focused on preserving health, and therefore when faced with possible abuse Dr Melinda Merck , one of the few veterinary forensics specialists in the world, notes that “it requires thinking outside the box…Anytime you have injuries that don’t match the history, then you have to think cruelty… Forensic investigation for cruelty is just expanding your possibilities to some horrific possibilities’.” This is indeed a tough scenario for the veterinarian to swallow as it adds a “policing” quality to the sacred veterinary/client relationship and wears very uncomfortably for many veterinarians.

The times are quickly changing though, and as society becomes aware of the human/animal link in abuse patterns and violence, veterinarians are expanding their roles and involvement in the science of forensics.

The special training that is required to recognize the signs of active animal abuse and post mortem forensic abuse is now becoming a burgeoning specialty in veterinary medicine. Skilled professionals such as Dr Merck are sharing their profound skills and experience in animal forensic medicine to the veterinary medical community as demand for forensic information continues to expand.

Dr Merck and others are developing the beginnings of standardized forensic procedures for animals that parallels that of humans. This will facilitate the recognition of what constitutes abuse of domestic animals and promises to guide the veterinary profession through what can often be very emotionally stressful and confusing experiences.

The ultimate goal is to better protect the defenseless, be they children, the aged, or- in this case- the animals, from some of the sadder and more sadistic elements of our society.

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