Courts & Crime

Animal forensics takes center stage in dog-fighting probes

KANSAS CITY — The morning of July 8, Melinda Merck was up by 3:30. By sunrise, she was processing her first of three remote Missouri crime scenes that day.

Merck, a top forensic veterinarian, flew in from Atlanta to help with the country’s largest-ever dog-fighting bust. She scoured each scene looking for evidence, just as she had done in earlier cases at the properties of former NFL quarterback Michael Vick and other high-profile dogfight ringleaders:

Blood spatters that weren’t human. Do-it-yourself medical supplies. Suspicious scar patterns. Graves.

It’s animal CSI.

Experts say the emerging field of veterinary forensics is playing an important role in prosecuting the Midwest’s historic eight-state, 500-dog case. Hundreds of live dogs, now kenneled at a secret location, are among the evidence.

"Ten years ago, it was very difficult for us to get animal cruelty investigated or prosecuted because many of the people … were not trained,” said Tim Rickey, who directs the animal cruelty task force for the Humane Society of Missouri that spurred the July 8 raids.

Investigators must know what to look for and how to document it properly, or evidence won’t hold up in court.

And they often must do it on a large scale.

It''s not unusual for dog-fighting raids to involve several dozen pit bulls. Sometimes there are more than 100. Illegal puppy mills and animal-hoarding cases also involve documenting huge numbers of animals at once.

There’s no human equivalent to that kind of crime, Merck said. Despite the tediousness of collecting it, physical evidence is paramount.

Witnesses who are willing to testify are sparse to nonexistent — dogfights are highly secretive, and most people who have seen one were involved somehow in the illegal activity.

The victims — though there may be hundreds — can’t talk.

Dog fighting now is a felony in all 50 states. Years of prison time may be at stake.

Read the full story at