WE all know that forensic science is big business on TV today but it’s a version that is truly sanitised. As vets we know the reality of post mortems and pathology, and we know that it can hardly be described as entertaining work.
The subject of veterinary forensics was a novel addition to this year’s BSAVA congress, and there were several themes discussed.
Yorkshire vet Simon Newbery was one of the key speakers. Simon may not have the long black X-Files coat or the porcelain-veneered CSI smile, but he’s the real deal.
A registered forensic practitioner, Simon is regularly involved in investigations of crimes involving animals. Although he primarily examines and gives evidence on live animals, he’s also been called in to comment on video footage of badger digs and dog fights, and he has worked with SOCA (the Serious Organised Crime Agency) on the misuse of veterinary drugs on the street.
At BSAVA, his presentation showed just how far removed real forensic science is from the Hollywood version. His photographic evidence portrayed emaciated and neglected dogs as well as some particularly gruesome scenes from a dog-hunting den, complete with blood spattered walls and faeces-caked treadmills.
It was not easy viewing, especially considering none of it was down to clever make-up or computer-generated imagery.
The term “forensic”, according to Simon, simply means “to aid the court”, and the most common forensic cases that vets come across are welfare cases. Whether you are faced with a thin, emaciated live animal, or a post-mortem where neglect is suspected, the key approach is to be methodical.
In such cases, the animal itself becomes the crime scene. This crime scene must be protected from “traffic”, i.e. other people, and all evidence should be carefully bagged, labelled and stored.
As Simon explained, a vet has two roles in a forensic examination: to preserve the evidence and to be able to prove to a court of law that he or she did this effectively.
One of the key concepts highlighted at BSAVA was maintaining the “chain of evidence”. In other words, the whereabouts of each piece of evidence – whether biological sample or photographic film – must be accounted for throughout the entire process. Evidence ceases to be evidence if it gets lost in an in-tray or left unattended on the reception desk.
The vet’s job does not end at the examination; he or she will have to file a report and may be called upon to attend court. Simon says it’s possible to carry out a perfectly acceptable examination but, if your report is not up to scratch, you’ll have difficulties in court.
His advice, in three words, is to be: “professional, clear and concise”. No matter how casual the case appears, it’s possible that your report could end up in front of judge and jury so a formal tone is preferred. Finally, if you are called upon to give evidence, preparation is the key: know your case, bring your notes with you and keep any references you’ve used in your report at hand.
The defence may try to discredit you at the cross examination stage, Simon said, so be prepared to defend both your qualifications and the examination you carried out.
Paula Boyden, veterinary adviser with Intervet/Schering Plough Animal Health, also had advice for vets at the BSAVA forensics stream. Paula, who is co-ordinator of her company’s “Forging the Link” campaign, which stimulates awareness of the association between child abuse, animal abuse and family violence, has specialist knowledge of NAI, or “non-accidental injury”.
It’s somewhat of a euphemism as NAI refers to injuries that have been caused deliberately, and you may recognise it better as the term “battered pet syndrome”.
According to Paula, research shows a correlation between serious animal abuse and child abuse within a home. And it’s not just adults who need to come onto our radar. Studies also suggest that a significant proportion of children who have demonstrated cruelty to animals have been affected by serious neglect and abuse themselves.
So, what signs can vets look out for? Paula explained that there is no one clinical sign that can indicate that a person is an animal abuser. She said: “No single pointer is diagnostic; it is a combination of pointers that raises concern and the combination is variable.”
One such pointer is that of a history that is inconsistent with the injury or a “discrepant” history, i.e. a history that changes depending on when it is given and who gives it. Repetitive injuries – i.e. animals that present more than once with injuries or, on consultation, are found to have older injuries on their body – should also trigger warning bells. Finally, unusual behaviour, both of the animal and its owner, can give some important clues.
Owners that come across as aggressive or angry, or are reluctant to give a history, can be suspect. And, as one would expect, abused animals can seem subdued or frightened on examination. Some animals, Paula noted, may even seem happier once hospitalised.
The very fact that veterinary forensics made it onto the BSAVA scientific programme suggests that this is a topic that will become of greater interest to our profession. However, if one thing is certain at this stage, the post mortems and protective clothing will never be quite as sexy as in Hollywood.