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Animal cruelty investigators learn to use forensics to unearth clues

GAINESVILLE

Deep in the forest, where the trees are tall and the ticks are thick, two dozen people worked last weekend unearthing graves.

They came from all over the world to learn from a feisty woman named Melinda Merck, who swiped at mosquitoes and supervised their digging.

As Merck peered through the trees, one student plucked grubs from the soft earth and threw them into a vial.

"It's definitely starting to stink in there," the student said.

Moments later: "We've got bone."

Cat bone.

• • •

Melinda Merck is a veterinarian from Atlanta and the rock star of a budding animal-crime-solving movement.

Merck has helped solve some of the most notable animal crimes in history, including the Michael Vick dogfighting case. She's moving to Gainesville to teach and investigate crimes at the University of Florida. The new animal forensics program is the first in the nation.

Crimes against animals have gained attention the past few years. Police are charging more people with animal hoarding. Prosecutors are more likely to take cases of dogfighting and cockfighting to court. More and more law schools are offering animal law classes.

All but four states now have felony animal cruelty laws. At the heart of the push is research that shows people who hurt animals often go on to commit more serious crimes against humans. Serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler) and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) all harmed animals before they went on to kill people.

No single agency keeps statistics on animal cruelty cases, so numbers are collected by animal abuse organizations anecdotally, from stories in the newspaper or on the Internet.

Florida seems to have more documented animal cruelty cases than most states. But this could be an indication that Florida's animal cruelty laws are strong and cases are more likely to be prosecuted, said Jennifer Hobgood, the Florida director for the Humane Society of the United States.

Just in the past few weeks, a man in Miami was accused of being a serial killer of cats; a Tampa woman was hauled to jail after she left her puppy in a hot car while shopping at Ikea; and another man was arrested for leaving two dogs in the bathroom of his Lutz apartment while he went to Las Vegas for two weeks.

In the Tampa Bay area, animals have been shot, choked, dragged, tortured and sodomized. They've been abandoned inside homes and garages to starve and die. They've been buried in back yards. They've been crammed together in puppy mills.

At the center of those cases are crime scenes and evidence, buried cats and broken dogs. Handling those crime scenes requires a different kind of training, one that Merck and others at the University of Florida hope will become commonplace.

But the idea of putting people in prison for harming animals, she said, is just beginning to gain momentum. Especially since former Atlanta Falcons football star Michael Vick spent time in prison for his dogfighting operation.

"Right now," Merck said, "we're at the beginning cusp of this movement."

• • •

As a forensic veterinarian, Merck plays a key role in seeking justice for abused animals.

"I'm their voice," she says.

In 2006, two teens in Atlanta hog-tied a 3-month-old puppy with duct tape, doused it with paint, lit it on fire and then baked it in an oven. Merck's work showed the animal was alive during the torture and the teens pleaded guilty.

A few years later, she was called to a field in Virginia to excavate the graves of eight pit bulls. Reviewing skeletons left behind by Vick's dogfighting operation, she found that some of the dogs had been hanged or shot to death. Vick pleaded guilty, too.

"Michael Vick was the best thing to happen," Merck said, "because it raised awareness on a national and international level."

Today Merck works for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She responds in the ASPCA's Mobile Animal CSI Unit to animal cruelty scenes across the country.

Recently the ASPCA and the University of Florida formed a partnership. Merck would come to UF's College of Veterinary Medicine to work with the W.R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine and the C.A. Pound Human Identification Lab and continue her animal forensic work.

But she would also join UF's forensic entomologists, botanists and anthropologists, who work on human cases as well as animal cases, in providing an animal forensic degree program at the university.

It likely will start online this fall. Eventually the plan is to offer a master's degree, said Jason H. Byrd, a forensic entomologist at the UF College of Medicine.

"This is offered nowhere else in the world," Byrd said.

• • •

Out in the woods, a veterinary student from Dublin, Ireland, and an animal control director from Louisiana collected a beer bottle, shells, candles and a glass statue of the Virgin Mary from the grave of a cat. Nearby, a veterinarian from Marion County gathered the tall grasses that had grown over a kitten's grave. A 16-year-old high school student from South Carolina took photos of another grave.

The veterinarians and the animal control officers were trying to make themselves more useful at animal crime scenes. The students were exploring whether the new field of animal forensics was for them.

Last fall, Merck and Byrd drove deep into the woods at the Austin Cary Memorial Forest, north of Gainesville. They buried the bodies of eight euthanized cats and dogs they'd gotten from a local animal shelter. They planted evidence: the beer bottles, the candles, the statue of the Virgin Mary, gum wrappers.

This past week, they returned with participants in an animal crime scene workshop to unearth the animals and solve the fictional crimes: A neighbor boy had likely stolen one cat. A group of students dabbling in the occult had taken another. Another had likely died at an end-of-the-year UF frat party.

Merck showed them how to find the graves (look for soft, raised or sunken earth that's slightly discolored), mark them off with stakes and string, clear and save the plants, collect bugs.

Deidra Flacco knelt at her team's grave and began removing the plants one by one. She is a 19-year-old freshman at Central Florida Community College in Ocala who has wanted to be a vet as long as she can remember. For the past five years, she has attended the North American Vet Convention in Orlando, where she met Merck.

"I want to be Melinda Merck," she said. "She's definitely my hero."

Flacco and her team were unearthing the bones of a cat that had been killed by the fictional neighbor boy. The skeleton broke apart as they lifted it out. They found condoms and lotion and a pen in the grave — all evidence that the cat had been sexually assaulted.

Then Merck handed them another 12-pound gray cat that had recently been euthanized at a local shelter. They buried it in the same hole along with earrings, a hair clip and a plastic fork and knife and pancake container from McDonald's.

The next class would have to solve that mystery.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Animal cruelty investigators learn to use forensics to unearth clues 06/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 5:06pm]

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