RICHMOND, Va. — When Marylin Christian's beloved cat Cody
was found dead under suspicious circumstances two years ago, she
vowed to seek justice.
But when Christian suggested that animal control officers
collect saliva from a neighbor's dog, Lucky, to see if it could be
genetically linked to hair found in Cody's mouth and claws, she was
met with bewilderment.
"They kind of acted like, 'Well, you've been watching a little
too much 'CSI,''' Christian recalled with a laugh.
Christian eventually paid $500 for the evidence to be tested at
the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of California at
Davis, which has the largest database of domesticated-animal DNA in
The result? A one in 67 million chance the hair belonged to any
animal other than Lucky.
"Usually, people come to us because it's a very emotional
matter,'' said Beth Wictum, acting director of the lab's forensics
division. "They've lost a pet, and for many people, pets are a
member of the family and they want to get resolution.''
In the time that's passed since Christian's loss, more and more
law enforcement officials have come to share her interest in
applying forensic methods to cases involving animals — whether the
animal is a victim, perpetrator, or even a witness.
"There's some real serious cases where animal DNA played a role
in helping solve the case,'' said Denver District Attorney Mitch
Morrissey, a DNA expert who has asked investigators to collect DNA
samples from murder suspects' pets at crime scenes. "I believe
that it will be used more and more.''
Wictum's lab handles between 150 and 200 cases a year from all
over the world. But scientists don't just deal with pet-on-pet
attacks. They process evidence from cases involving animal attacks
on humans, human attacks on animals, and even human crimes against
each other in which an animal may yield important clues.
In one case, the lab used DNA testing to match dog excrement
found on the bottom of a murder suspect's shoe to excrement found
near the crime scene — a piece of evidence that helped secure the
In another case, a sexual assault victim couldn't pick her
attacker out of a lineup — but she remembered her dog had urinated
on the man's pickup truck. The dog's DNA matched DNA traces found
on the truck's tire and the suspect pleaded guilty.
ASPCA forensic veterinarian Melinda Merck relies on the same
techniques as standard crime scene investigators — ballistics,
toxicology, blood spatter analysis — to help solve animal cruelty
cases across the country.
"It's rapidly growing,'' she said of her specialty. "There is
a tremendous interest from the veterinarians and there's a
tremendous interest from law enforcement.''
Last year, Merck testified in the Atlanta trial of two teenage
brothers who tortured a puppy and left it in an oven to die. Merck
was able to prove the puppy was alive when it was tortured and
reconstructed the animal's grim final moments for a jury. The
brothers were sentenced to a maximum punishment of 10 years in
Even forensic entomologists, who use insects such as maggots to
help estimate a victim's time of death, have crossed over into the
world of animal-related crimes.
Forensic entomologist Jason Byrd often is called on to help
investigators with wildlife crimes and poaching cases. If a bald
eagle is shot at a game reserve, Byrd can examine the maggots on
the bird's carcass to help determine its time of death.
Investigators then can access the records at the reserve to narrow
down who was in the area at the time of the shooting.
"They're not scared to spend money now to figure out who's been
poaching animals,'' Byrd said. "Now they do true investigation
techniques — they throw forensic science at the problem.''
As the field of animal forensics grows, so does the need for
Colleges are just beginning to take note. This year, Purdue
University's School of Veterinary Medicine began offering a
forensic veterinary medicine course, believed to be the first of
its kind in the country, said professor Janice Sojka. Sojka said
she recognized a need for the course after noticing a recent
explosion of interest in the field.
"With 'CSI' and 'Law & Order,' people kind of know what's out
there and what can be done and then there's a growing expectation
that you'll do that for your animals,'' she said. "It's become a
lot more respected.''
Despite the fact that Christian got DNA results, animal control
officers refused to declare Lucky a dangerous dog. Lucky and his
owners have since moved away.
And even though her CSI-style pursuit of justice was expensive
and frustrating, the stay-at-home mother of two has no regrets.
"I felt like I needed to do it for my family,'' she said. "The
two-legged and the four-legged.''