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Voice For Justice: Melinda Merck, DVM

Posted: October 6, 2009


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Melinda Merck, DVM

When authorities were trying to build the infamous dogfighting case against Michael Vick, they weren’t sure exactly what to look for or how to prove it.

But forensic scientist Melinda Merck, DVM, did.

After excavating the graves of some of the pit bulls and analyzing their remains, she pieced together the horrific details of their deaths. Some had been hanged; others had been shot. Her expertise helped put the National Football League quarterback in prison and brought more attention to what’s becoming an important new tool in law enforcement.

Now senior director of veterinary forensics at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York, Dr. Merck is on the front lines of this rapidly growing specialty, combining the techniques of human forensic science with the specialized knowledge of veterinary medicine.

“It’s not about punishment or getting people put into jail; it’s about protecting the animals,” Merck says. “If we’re not the voice for that animal, who is?”

On-the-Job Training

In the emerging field of veterinary forensic science, Merck, 45, is a star—profiled by National Public Radio and People magazine, sought after as a speaker and consultant. She helped found the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Assn. last year and is assisting with the launch next year at the University of Florida of the nation’s first formal veterinary forensic sciences program.

It all started because she wanted to help suffering animals and bring those who hurt them to justice.

Back in 2000, Georgia passed a state law making animal cruelty a felony. Merck had been running a veterinary practice in Roswell, Ga., since 1990, shortly after graduating from Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She knew the law would be no good unless people understood how to enforce it. In 2002 she joined a newly formed Georgia group that educated people about investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty.

So little work had been done in forensics involving animals, however, that Merck soon turned to studying human forensics.

“I started working with the medical examiner’s office in Atlanta,” she says. “They’d call me when they had a homicide, and I would go to the autopsies.”

Forensics experts had the specialized knowledge she needed: how to collect evidence like fluids and fibers, or how to interpret bullet trajectories.

But Merck possessed knowledge needed by officers accustomed to human victims. She could explain that dogs bleed differently than humans do, proving why a crime scene photo might not show bloody paw prints. She could remind investigators that they needed to look for gravesites as small as 1 foot long, not human-sized ones. She could interpret claw marks and how they might indicate an animal’s struggle with a perpetrator.

“Veterinarians are naturally the experts on what an animal’s response to fear and pain would be,” Merck says.

Crucial Role for Vets

As states began toughening laws against animal crimes and as awareness grew, Merck began spending more time investigating and analyzing cases of abuse, hoarding, puppy mills and dogfighting. By 2007, she had given up her private practice to work full time for the ASPCA. Now, her time is divided among consulting, investigating crime scenes and creating and delivering education, both for veterinary professionals and law enforcement officials.

Education is sorely needed, some say.

“Several surveys indicate that it is likely that every veterinarian will confront animal cruelty at some point in her/his career. It is important for them to recognize it and know how to respond,” says Randall Lockwood, Ph.D., senior vice president of anti-cruelty field services at the ASPCA.
“Veterinarians are among the most trusted professionals in court,” Lockwood says. “Their testimony carries enormous weight, but current professional training does little to prepare vets for this key role.”

Educating the Next Generation

Next spring, the University of Florida will begin a certificate program as part of its online master’s degree in forensic science. Merck is helping develop the program, which will teach veterinarians to recognize crime against animals and give vets the tools to do something about it.

She says veterinarians are attuned toward diagnosis and treatment rather than looking for cause. A vet may recognize that a puppy’s fracture doesn’t fit with a fall down the stairs, as had been reported, but may not realize that the puppy may have been beaten.

“If your alarm bells are going off, that’s huge,” Merck says. “A problem is that once (a vet) becomes suspicious, they may not have been taught what to do next.”

Veterinarians are mandated to report animal cruelty suspicions in about a dozen states. And even in those states that don’t require reporting, vets have a moral imperative to do so, Merck believes.

“You may be the only thing that stands there to protect that animal, and the alternative, not to report, is just not acceptable,” she says.

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This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News

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