Crime Scene Vet Probes Cruelty Cases

Melinda Merck has dedicated her career to the sciences that protect animals from cruelty and ensuring animal welfare.

Her work is shocking, emotionally taxing and difficult to comprehend. She sees painful images of cruelty and malice. She examines remains, photographs brutality and documents abuse.

When the investigations are over, her findings help put criminals in prison.

Melinda Merck, DVM, of Atlanta is a forensic veterinarian dedicating her career to educating people about animal welfare, enforcing anti-cruelty legislation and working to convict animal abusers.

Her latest book, “Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations” (Blackwell Publishing, 2007) is scheduled for release in July. She says its role is to fill the gap in education for veterinarians and pathologists in recognizing and reporting animal abuse, and the specific skills veterinarians need to understand animal-cruelty investigations and performing forensic examinations on animals.

“Veterinarians have an obligation to step out of their own small world and make an impact,” Dr. Merck says.

Merck believes so strongly in the veterinarian’s role in recognizing and reporting animal abuse that in November, after six years of private practice, she sold her feline-only clinic in Roswell, Ga., to work full time for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as its veterinary forensics consultant.

“I always had a long-term plan to create the position for her,” says Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty initiatives and legislative services for the ASPCA.

There are only a handful of veterinarians in the world who have the kind of forensic experience that Merck has, Lockwood says. So her colleagues appreciate her full-time entry into promoting veterinary forensics.

“I feel good about [selling my practice],” Merck says. “There’s a lot of anxiety about change, but my work in forensics and the demand for my services was increasing. I couldn’t burn the candle at both ends.

“It was time to fill the niche in this area. The learning curve will never flatten and there’s a sense of satisfaction when we get a guilty plea.”

In February, an Atlanta jury sentenced two teenagers convicted of felony aggravated animal cruelty and other charges, including burglary, to 10 years in prison and 10 years’ probation.

The brothers were found guilty of torturing a 3-month-old puppy, binding its legs and putting it in a gas oven, where it burned to death.

Merck testified as an expert witness for the prosecution, detailing for the jury the agony of the puppy’s last hours of life.

“I performed the necropsy on the puppy, collected samples and visited the crime scene,” Merck says. “It was my job to prove that the dog was alive during the torture and also to establish a timeline of events.”

And she did. The sentence was the toughest ever in Georgia and the maximum possible sentence for the animal cruelty counts, Lockwood says.

Her training as a veterinarian provides a focus of expertise that human forensic investigators may not have, she says.

“Human forensic investigators don’t always have context for animal behavior and animals’ responses to fear,” she says. “So veterinarians should function in that role, learn the process of forensics and offer their services to local investigators whenever possible.”

Her work pushes the boundaries of emotional stress that even human medical examiners may experience.

“The victims are similar to what [human] medical examiners would have with an infant or an elderly person,” she says. “Those are difficult cases because they are the most defenseless victims. But animals are the ultimate defenseless victim.”

Merck has seen first-hand the toll animal-abuse cases take on the humans who try to save them. Of the hundreds of cases she has worked, one in particular weighs on her mind—the case she will never forget.

Working on a tip, animal control officers called Merck to accompany law enforcement to assess the scene of a dog-fighting ring and a large number of animals found on the property. There were many puppies on heavy chains with no food or water, she says.

But the drama escalated when officers confronted the suspect and he ran. In addition to weapons and drugs, law enforcement found a gray-and-white pitbull puppy covered in severe demodex confined to a laundry room and left to die, Merck says.

“We had the support of animal control, police and crime-scene investigators—there were narcotics, weapons and crime stuff everywhere,” Merck says.

But investigators and police focused on the puppy, she says, praying that it would live.

Merck knows her line of work isn’t for everyone.

She says she functions well under stress and empathizes with the animals, but, she adds, “You can’t be so empathetic that you can’t function.”

She says the job takes a certain personality with deductive reasoning skills and an investigative mind. There are those veterinarians who would not do well with the emotional part of forensic work, she says.

She’s remarkably optimistic about her job and says that, despite the hundreds of heinous crimes she’s investigated, she’s never felt defeated, even after the cases that didn’t go her way.

“Our veterinary training teaches us to compartmentalize,” she says. “The daily life of a vet is a roller coaster and we run the danger of becoming cold and apathetic.”

But one must find a balance, she says.

“I have close friendships with the people on the cases and that allows me to share the burden. I look for the good in the experience … even if you don’t get the guilty plea … because my work serves as a deterrent for future violence.”

Merck’s instinct that animal cruelty was rampant in Georgia was validated in 2000 when the state passed its Animal Protection Act. The act allows judges to sentence up to one year in jail for general cruelty convictions and up to five years for aggravated cruelty convictions and to order psychological counseling for those charged.

This law’s passage meant one thing to Merck: “We could get justice in place,” she says. Merck says that this legislation also spurred the creation of the Georgia Legal Professionals for Animals, an association of professionals who facilitate the education of state prosecutors, judges and law enforcement on veterinary forensics. The formation of this group, of which Merck now serves as vice president of forensic affairs, sparked her realization that veterinary forensics was her path.

“[At meetings] I promoted the need for vet education and their significant role in these cases,” she says. “So, I became responsible for doing the vet and crime scene investigation portion of the seminars we conducted.

“I began researching forensics, working with local medical examiners and attending their homicide autopsies, and reading all the textbooks and journal articles out there on forensic pathology and crime scene investigation. Who better to interpret the crime scene than an expert on animals? As the investigation and prosecution of animal cruelty grew, so did the demand for my help.”

By proxy of her affiliation with groups such as the ASPCA and the GLPA, their mission statements reflect Merck’s vision. But she has a mission statement all her own.

“Pay it forward,” she says. “Affecting change through your actions includes education and no fear of the untraveled road.”

Somyr McLean Perry is managing editor of Veterinary Practice News.

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