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A voice for the voiceless: UF holds first Animal Forensic Investigations Conference

Dr. Adam Stern, an associate professor of forensic pathology at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, gives opening remarks at the conference on Monday. (Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)
Dr. Adam Stern, an associate professor of forensic pathology at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, gives opening remarks at the conference on Monday. (Bonny Matejowsky/WUFT News)

Through due diligence and unwavering observation, forensic investigators play a crucial role in finding justice for victims and holding perpetrators accountable.

But what happens when the details of the death are murky, the victim doesn’t have the typical identifying information and isn’t even a human? 

In cases of animal abuse, the different type of victims requires a different type of specialist — veterinary forensic experts.

The University of Florida’s Veterinary Forensic Sciences Laboratory held its first three-day Animal Forensic Investigations Conference from Monday to Wednesday. More than 140 veterinarians, attorneys, law enforcement officials and students gathered at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center Gainesville to discuss the latest investigative research and share their skills with a wider audience.

 Dr. Adam Stern is a full professor of forensic pathology at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and the director of the International Society for Animal Forensic Scientists. He led the event.

Besides consulting on cases involving animals as an expert witness, Stern conducts veterinary forensic research and manages all veterinary forensic pathology cases for UF.

An estimated 10 million animals die from abuse in the United States each year, with many cases going unreported or uninvestigated.

“Animal crimes are just like any other crime,” Stern said.

Though the use of forensics in solving human cases dates back thousands of years, the practice of veterinary forensics is still a burgeoning field.

 UF’s Forensic Sciences Laboratory opened in 2018 and has since worked on hundreds of animal abuse cases ranging from household pets to farm animals to wildlife.

“It’s 11 boarded pathologists who have attained the level where we call them fellows in forensic pathology, and that’s the pinnacle of what you can attain,” Stern said. “There’s not many of us right now so there is a huge need.”

Necropsies, which refer to autopsies performed on animals, can be used to determine the cause, mode and manner of death. If the case is taken to court, necropsies are a valuable piece of evidence for achieving justice for deceased animals.

Investigating animal deaths is not only important for preventing animal abuse but also for domestic abuse.

 “The relationship between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence is very significant,” Stern said.

According to a study published in the Journal of Emotional Abuse, 71% of pet owners entering domestic violence shelters reported their abuser threatened, injured or killed family pets. Another study found that 88% of the families in which physical child abuse took place also had animals that were abused.

Animal investigations should be treated with the same care and practices as those for humans, Stern said. The purpose of this conference was to spread this idea and provide professionals with the tools needed to bring animal cruelty perpetrators to justice.

“We’re trying to break down those barriers and show everybody that they do have the skills,” Stern said. “Sometimes they need to learn a few new things because it is different. But everybody is able to investigate it.”

The conference highlighted forensics’ collaborative nature by focusing on three perspectives – the veterinarian, the investigator and the attorney.

Monday, forensic specialists and veterinarians lectured and set up tables to educate conferencegoers on their fields of study. One of those was Megan Stolen, a senior scientist at the marine nonprofit Blue World Research Institute.

 Her job involves examining the corpses of whales and dolphins that wash ashore to determine their cause of death. Most of the time that cause is human-related, she said.

“[The job] is very similar to what you would do with a dog or a cat, but it’s just on a bigger scale,” Stolen said.

On the other hand, forensic entomologist Jason Byrd determines the cause of death by looking at a much smaller subject — bugs.

One of the 21 scheduled speakers, Byrd gave a detailed presentation about his niche profession. His job involves examining the types of insect species present in a decaying body to determine the details of its death.

“A forensic entomologist can isolate all of this very complex, caring ecology that nobody really cares about and give you some very basic information on geographic origins, locations and time,” Byrd said.

Both Byrd and Stolen referenced the “CSI Effect” as a commonly held misconception among the general public. The term refers to how the portrayal of forensics in crime television shows can affect people’s perspective of investigations.

“People have watched too much television,” Byrd said. “There is an unrealistic expectation of what can be done with the time it takes to do it and with the resources that are going to be put in.”

Kali Griffith, a second-year graduate student studying veterinary forensic pathology at the University of Georgia, also stressed the complexity of investigations.

“With a general necropsy, it takes us about 14 business days,” Griffith said. “For a legal case, we’re looking at every single tissue just to make sure we’re not missing something.”

 The research that she presented at the conference involves examining the cells of animal tissue to determine a timeline of when the abuse occurred.

 “I think it's very interesting to be a voice for the voiceless and help the animals get justice,” she said.

Though the conference was the first of its kind, the UF Veterinary Forensic Science Laboratory shows no signs of slowing down. Two more animal forensic conferences are in the works for 2025 and 2026, and a recent anonymous $7 million gift allowed the program to continue expanding its efforts.

 “The whole long-term thing is to really get justice for animals and prevent future animals and even people from being victims,” Stern said.

Bonny is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.