"Animal CSI" Helps Catch Abusers

Pet detectives are using hi-tech tools to help crack cases of animal cruelty.

In the emerging field of "animal CSI," scientists employ technology similar to that used in the TV shows to help track down animal abusers and try to prove they did it.

As The Early Show's resident veterinarian, Dr. Debbye Turner points out, animal abuse is often hard to detect and even harder to prosecute.

That's where the new specialty -- forensic veterinary medicine comes in.

The 23-month prison sentence handed down to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for his involvement in dog fighting grabbed headlines and sparked public outrage but, observes Turner, animal cruelty also involves everyday cases with everyday people.

"Unfortunately," says Mike Pastore, the director of field operations for animal care and control in New York City, "we've seen stabbings, we've seen dogs thrown out windows, cats thrown out windows."

But since animals can't talk, cruelty cases are hard to prove. And forensic veterinary medicine, or "animal CSI," can help tip the scales the other way, Turner says.

"Applying human forensic science to animals is so cutting-edge," remarks Dr. Melinda Merck, the forensic veterinarian for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). "I have always been driven to help the underdog, and that is to help the unwanted, help the helpless."

Her new office is a state-of-the-art animal 'CSI' lab on wheels. It can travel anywhere, and can literally help change the way this country prosecutes crimes against animals.

Merck told Turner she probes an average of two-to-three cases of animal cruelty.

She introduced Turner to Junior, a six-year-old mixed-breed with mysterious injuries.

"He was found starving on the streets, suffering from severe malnutrition," Merck says.

In cases like this one, it's her job to find out if a crime was committed, by collecting evidence and then helping to build a case.

"It is always an enigma that comes to us with these cases," Merck says. "We don't know what happened, and it's all trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together."

Merck uses tools such as cameras, ultraviolet light, microscopes, magnifiers (because injuries to animals can be very small), and blood-spatter technology to try to solve the puzzle.

"I have to be the voice. I have to be the voice of the animal," Merck explains. "It is very much just like 'CSI,' except our victims can not testify," Merck says.

DNA, she tells Turner, is her most powerful tool in working on possible abuse cases.

"You can't refute DNA," Merck says.

But if there's no DNA evidence at a crime scene, Merck can comb an animal's fur for clues.

"This is really important," Merck says, "because animals shed, so whoever has contact with that animal, that fur is going to end up on something from them."

So," Turner said, "if they say, 'I've never even seen this animal,' you can use (the animal) hair to match up with hair in their environment."

"Evidence doesn't lie," Merck agreed with Turner.

Merck adds, "I have 100% success rate so far with my cases, so it's very validating. It makes it worth it."

If you are interested in adopting or helping animals after seeing Turner's report, you can contact the ASPCA at 212-876-7700 or visit www.aspca.org. You can also get in touch with Animal Care and Control of New York City at 212-788-4000 or www.nycacc.org.