Saturday, November 27, 2010

Animal CSI's helping bring a new level of justice

When federal investigators working the Michael Vick dogfighting case needed someone to dig up and analyze the remains of eight pit bulls buried on the football star’s Virginia property, they summoned Melinda Merck.
The nation’s top forensic veterinarian, Merck was one of the few specialists trained in processing crime scenes involving animals. Her job at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals involves helping prosecutors build court cases, and she saw that there weren’t nearly enough vets and other professionals with those skills.
Merck, 46, is trying to change that, co-founding a first-of-its-kind veterinary forensic science training program at the University of Florida. She and scientists from the university’s human forensics lab are sharing their expertise with animal-cruelty investigators, police and veterinarians who come to Gainesville from around the world.
In a nod to the popular TV shows, it’s already being called “Animal CSI.”
Demand for forensic veterinarians has been growing as many states have toughened their animal cruelty laws. And law enforcement agencies nationwide have increasingly recognized that people who abuse animals are more likely to commit crimes against people.
Hands-on seminars teach participants crime-scene processing and the preservation of evidence in cases of animal abuse and neglect such as those involving puppy mills, dogfighting and animal hoarding. Elements include exhuming remains, analyzing hair, fibers and blood splatter and even how insect life cycles and plant growth can yield clues about an animal’s death.
“With animal cruelty, there are usually no witnesses — or reluctant witnesses — and certainly the victims can’t testify, even if they’re alive,” Merck said. “So they’re always evidence-based cases.”
A partnership between the ASPCA and the university’s William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, the program has trained about 200 people so far, mostly through two- and three-day sessions. A certification program in the subject for UF students is in the works.
On a warm afternoon earlier this month deep in a forest near Gainesville, teams of six are sifted through cordoned-off “crimes scenes,” seeking evidence of buried animal remains. Each group had a scenario: One was investigating ritualistic animal sacrifice; others were looking into cases of animals being shot, strangled and stabbed by abusers. The students processed the carefully staged scenes, learning to build a criminal case that will stand up in court.
“We all get abuse or suspected abuse cases,” said Cheryl Clark of San Diego, a veterinarian for more than three decades who took meticulous notes as her group unearthed shreds of potential evidence.
“At this point in my career, I want to get some more precise knowledge to help other professional veterinarians. I want to help animals on a more global scale, so I think the way to do it is prosecute abusers and try to get laws changed and improved."
Others sweating in the woods included ASPCA field investigators, American Humane Association disaster-response team members and vets like Clark.
The idea for the program began with maggots. That’s the way Merck and Jason Byrd tell it. Byrd is a forensic entomologist at the university who has traveled the world helping CSI types discern clues from the life cycles of insects found on decomposing bodies.

Merck, then a private veterinarian in Atlanta, sought out Byrd in 2003 to analyze maggots found on animal remains as she sought to determine a time of death.
Merck eventually joined the ASPCA in Atlanta but continued to turn to Byrd for help. Soon they were holding workshops for law enforcement at the University of Florida. They organized the first international veterinary forensic sciences conference in 2008, and a year later Merck moved to Gainesville. She runs the program alongside Byrd, helped so far by more than $300,000 in ASPCA funding.
"She was really the first veterinarian in the country who came to law enforcement and said, ‘Teach me what you guys do.’ And she was the first person to religiously apply what we do at her crime scenes,” Byrd said.
Last year, Merck marshaled university-trained forensic teams to 25 crime scenes and helped break up the largest suspected dogfighting ring in U.S. history. The investigation rescued more than 400 pit bulls from six states and led to 26 arrests.
In the Vick case, Merck was given the grim task of excavating two mass graves containing the remains of eight dogs in order to determine exactly how they had died. Her findings corroborated what witnesses said about the NFL star and co-defendants killing underperforming animals by hanging, shooting, drowning and slamming them to the ground. Exhumed bones that showed signs of bites also supported dogfighting charges in the federal indictment.
“What we reconstructed was not consistent with his version of events,” Merck says of Vick.
The athlete was convicted in 2007 of conspiracy and running a dogfighting ring and served 18 months in prison and two months of home confinement. The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in August 2009, less than a month after his release and has since made speaking appearances urging people to show kindness toward animals.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Veal plant worker admits to abuse, plant closed

A former worker at Bushway Packing Inc. in Grand Isle, Vt., has pled guilty to one charge of aggravated cruelty to animals for his role in the abuse of veal calves at the plant last year.
Christopher Gaudette, 37, was caught on secretly taped video by an "investigator" for The Humane Society of the United States showing Gaudette excessively shocking non-ambulatory calves with electric prods and engaging in other abuse (Feedstuffs, Aug. 16).
He is to receive a sentence of one to three years in jail, which will be suspended to 30 days of work on a state work crew, according to Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell. He also will be prohibited from future work around live animals, Sorrell said.
A co-owner of the plant, Frank Perretta, 51, pled no contest in October to one charge of animal abuse and received a one-year suspended sentence. He also agreed to pay a $2,000 fine, perform 120 hours of community service and not work around live animals in the future.
The plant has been closed.

There is a petition circulating to ban veal production in the US. You may add your name here: PETITION

Please take a moment to sign your name and vow to go Meat Free this Thanksgiving

I know, many are reluctant to break the long standing tradition of Turkey or Ham on Thanksgiving, but we must take a moment to think about how these animals are treated or handled before they are sent along to become your dinner.

We are asking for all that care, please leave your name in the comments section to vow to go "Meat Free this T-Day."

Thank you.

Mistreatment of baby turkeys at hatchery exposed

An undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States has documented what the organization alleges is routine abuse and cruelty involving newly hatched turkey chicks at Willmar Poultry Co.
The Humane Society released its report and findings Tuesday.
The nonprofit organization is calling for the turkey industry to adopt more humane practices for disposing of sick and injured birds and for de-beaking baby turkeys.
“Most people don’t want animals to be treated cruelly,” said Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Willmar Poultry Co. said it was committed to meeting or exceeding science-based industry standards for the welfare of its turkeys.
“Willmar Poultry Company is a family-owned business. At WPC, we believe in the humane treatment of turkeys and aspire to do this throughout the company, including the raising, breeding, hatching and transporting of all our turkeys,” Richard VanderSpek, president and chief operating officer, said in a prepared statement.
An undercover investigator with the Humane Society of the United States worked at Willmar Poultry for 11 days in October, using a hidden camera to record how baby turkeys were treated.
Willmar Poultry was targeted for the investigation because “it’s the largest turkey hatchery in the nation,” Shapiro said.
“We’ve done several investigations at factory farms and slaughter plants but this is our first investigation at a turkey hatchery,” he said.
He said the Humane Society of the United States “wanted to shine the light on this part of their lives that few people are familiar with — the very first day of their lives.”
Among the allegations contained in the Humane Society of the United States report:
- Sick, deformed, injured and dying birds, as well as “leftovers” not needed for buyers’ orders, are routinely disposed of by being thrown alive into a grinder.
- Sick and injured birds are left in boxes or on the floor all day until being killed.
- Chicks are routinely de-beaked without first being given a painkiller.
- Chicks routinely have their back toes clipped off without a painkiller.
The report alleges that baby turkeys get trapped and injured in conveyor belts as they’re processed for shipment to farms. It also alleges that boxes filled with poults are sometimes stacked too high or unevenly and crash to the floor, scattering and injuring the turkey chicks inside.
Although the report was issued just two days before Thanksgiving, the peak time for turkey consumption in the U.S., the timing wasn’t deliberate, Shapiro said. “It’s just how it worked out,” he said.
The Humane Society of the United States is calling for more humane methods of handling sick and injured chicks. These birds should be promptly and humanely euthanized rather than left on the floor until the end of the day, Shapiro said.
The Humane Society of the United States also is urging the turkey industry to adopt more humane practices for de-beaking and declawing newly hatched poults.
The organization said there are no current federal laws governing the treatment of baby turkeys.
VanderSpek said Willmar Poultry Co. has policies and procedures for all aspects of turkey welfare.
Employees receive training and can face discipline if they don’t follow policy, he said.
The undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States does appear to identify actions by some employees that violate Willmar Poultry Co. animal welfare policies, he said. “We condemn any mistreatment of animals in our care and will take swift action to investigate and address those issues.”
He said Willmar Poultry also will review its policies, procedures, employee training and site monitoring to help make sure employees understand and follow the company’s animal welfare policies and procedures.
VanderSpek said the standards used at Willmar Poultry include the National Turkey Federation’s animal care guidelines, which are science-based and supported by the Federation of Animal Science Societies Animal Welfare Committee, the American Association of Avian Pathologists welfare subcommittee and the AAAP board of directors. National Turkey Federation guidelines also comply with World Organization for Animal Health standards, he said.
According to its website, Willmar Poultry Co. produces 45 million eggs a year, making it the largest turkey hatchery in the United States. Thirty million poults are hatched each year in Willmar and another 15 million at a custom hatchery in Foley, Minn. The company has been an innovator in poultry genetics, biotechnology and engineering.
The Humane Society of the United States report prompted the Humane Society of Kandiyohi and Meeker counties to issue a statement Tuesday reminding the public that the local humane society is neither affiliated with nor receives funding from the Humane Society of the United States.
“While we deplore animal cruelty, our focus is on companion animals and not on any alleged industry abuses,” the local organization said in a statement.

Farmer charged after starving his cattle

A 62 year-old man has pleaded guilty to 2 counts of animal cruelty after a herd of starving and dying cattle was discovered at his farm at Tenterden this year.
The Mount Barker Magistrates Court heard more than 20 cattle from Thomas Ward Irving's herd of 660 had to be put down and the rest were in a very poor condition.
Irving was fined $4,000 and must pay $45,000 in costs to the RSPCA.
He was also banned from keeping cattle unless he receives RSPCA approval.

100 pit bulls being rescued from dog fighting operation

Search warrants are currently being executed for suspected dog fighting operations in South Georgia in two separate raids underway in Berrien and Cook counties.  More than 100 pit bulls are involved.
Norred & Associates Inc, an Atlanta private investigation and security firm, initiated the dog fighting investigations approximately six months ago.  Information and evidence was provided to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney’s office of the Alapaha Judicial Circuit. This information was confirmed by the GBI.  As a result, search warrants were obtained by the GBI and are being executed in cooperation with law enforcement officials in Berrien and Cook counties.  
According to Norred Investigator Chuck Simmons, a number of observations during the course of the investigation prompted today’s raids. “The pit bulls were observed with severe scarring on their muzzles and forelegs consistent with wounds observed in other dog fighting operations,” said Simmons. “There were additional forms of abuse including lack of water and food and emaciated dogs. The dogs were being maintained in a manner that has been observed in other dog fighting operations.“
The Atlanta Humane Society, working in conjunction with Norred and local law enforcement, has deployed its HEART, or Humane Emergency Animal Rescue Team, to help triage and transport the rescued dogs.
For over three years, Greg Norred, CEO and Founder of Norred & Associates, has contributed his company’s expertise and financial resources to investigating suspected dog fighting in Georgia and surrounding states. Twenty-six raids have resulted in 48 arrests of individuals involved and rescues of 600 dogs. In addition to their investigations, the company has instituted a toll-free animal cruelty hotline—1.877.215.2250—that enables private citizens to report dog fighting and other cases of suspected animal abuse anonymously.

Man again facing animal abuse charges even after dragging a dog to death 17 years prior

An 41-year-old Aurora man is again facing animal abuse charges, 17 years after he was sentenced to prison for dragging another dog to death.
Phillip Rinn of the 300 block of South Kendall Street was charged last Monday with misdemeanor cruelty to animals, the Kane County sheriff’s office said. At 8:30 a.m. Nov. 15, police were called for a report of a man beating a dog.
Investigators determined that Rinn was punching a 1-year-old Lab Shepherd mix named Magda, police said. The dog had several broken teeth and was taken to the VAC Aurora Animal Hospital for treatment. Police said the animal is expected to recover from its injuries.
The Kane County state’s attorney’s office is reviewing the case and may upgrade the charges to a felony, police said. Rinn posted $100 bond Nov. 16.
In 1993, Rinn pleaded guilty to cruelty to an animal. Police officers testified that Rinn admitted to chaining his dog “Royal” by the neck and dragging it down Peck Road a short distance in an attempt to kill it.
When the dog didn’t die, officials said Rinn told them he pulled over onto a roadside grassy area and ran over the dog. Rinn explained he was mad at the dog because it had chewed his car’s vinyl roof and tried to bite his wife, the officers said.
Rinn was sentenced to 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service for that incident.