GAINESVILLE — When federal investigators working the Michael Vick dogfighting case needed someone to dig up and analyze the remains of eight pit bulls buried on the football star's Virginia property, they summoned Melinda Merck.
The nation's top forensic veterinarian, Merck was one of the few specialists trained in processing crime scenes involving animals. Her job at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals involves helping prosecutors build court cases, and she saw there weren't nearly enough vets and other professionals with those skills.
The 46-year-old Merck is trying to change that, co-founding a first-of-its-kind veterinary forensic science training program at the University of Florida. She and scientists from the university's renowned human forensics lab are sharing their expertise with animal-cruelty investigators, police and veterinarians who come from around the world.
In a nod to the popular TV shows, it's already being called "Animal CSI."
Demand for forensic veterinarians has been growing as many states have toughened their animal cruelty laws. Law enforcement agencies nationwide say that those who abuse animals are likely to eventually commit crimes against people.
Seminars teach participants crime-scene processing and the preservation of evidence. A partnership between the ASPCA and the university's William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, the program has already trained around 200 people.
The idea for the program began with maggots.
That's the way Merck and Jason Byrd tell it. Byrd is a forensic entomologist, or insect expert, at the university who has traveled the world helping CSI types discern clues from the life cycles of insects found on decomposing bodies.
Merck, then a private veterinarian in Atlanta, sought out Byrd in 2003 to analyze maggots found on some animal remains as she sought to determine a time of death.
Merck eventually joined the ASPCA in Atlanta but continued to turn to Byrd for help. Soon they were organizing workshops for law enforcement at the University of Florida, and the whole thing was galvanized with the first international veterinary forensic sciences conference in May 2008.
In the Vick case, Merck was given the grim task of excavating two mass graves containing the remains of eight dogs. She was asked to determine exactly how the dogs had died. The athlete was convicted in 2007 of conspiracy and running a dogfighting ring and served 18 months in prison.