Forensic Vet Helps Prevent Animal Cruelty Melinda Merck is not your average "pet detective." As a forensic vet with the ASPCA, Merck offers insight into the harrowing world of animal cruelty — and how we can use the legal system to stop it.
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Forensic Vet Helps Prevent Animal Cruelty

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Forensic Vet Helps Prevent Animal Cruelty

Forensic Vet Helps Prevent Animal Cruelty

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our animal week series continues with a pioneer of forensic veterinary medicine, Melinda Merck. She does crime scene investigations in cases of animal cruelty and conducts autopsies to determine the cause of death when foul play is suspected. She's the senior director of veterinary forensic sciences for the ASPCA and a consultant for the Fulton County District Attorney's Office in Atlanta. She was the veterinary forensics expert on the Michael Vick dog fighting case. She's also the author of two books about forensic investigations into animal cruelty. I spoke with Melinda Merck in 2007.

Dr. Merck, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you find that some people, including some police, some lawyers and judges consider crimes against animals to be relatively unimportant?

Dr. MELINDA MERCK (Senior Director, Veterinary Forensic Sciences, ASPCA): I think that in the past that has been more of the norm. I have seen in the last two three years a change in that. And I think that what is responsible for that is that the education that is going on through the ASPCA and other organizations about the link with animal cruelty and other acts of violence specifically, oftentimes these cases - the defendants in these cases also have either outstanding warrants or they have criminal backgrounds or there's concurrent crimes going on, such as drugs and domestic violence. So I think that has caused a shift in the focus in taking these cases seriously and giving them proper investigations and support, as far as prosecution as well.

GROSS: What's your typical case like, if there is such a thing?

Dr. MERCK: The most common case that anybody sees is neglect. And that can vary from an animal suffering from malnutrition in the backyard and starving, but the majority of the cases that we're starting to see more and more of, and I think these are extremely heinous as well, is the large-scale animal neglect cases. And those involve hoarders, which is a collection of animals. It involves puppy mills. And then, of course, the other large-scale cases are dog fighting.

GROSS: Now you mentioned that the collection of animals is one common forms of abuse that you find. You were on one case where there were 130 dead cats found in one large house along with 26 severely malnourished cats. What was your role in this case?

Dr. MERCK: I - it was a long night. I did the crime scene investigation. There was every floor - there was three floors, and every floor there was decease cats in various stages of decomposition and then we had the 26 live cats. So the prosecutor Laura Janssen came out on the scene and I pretty much examined every animal that I could and we started collecting evidence. And there was a lot of things that...

GROSS: You examined the living animals or the dead animals?

Dr. MERCK: I started examining the deceased animals as best as I could at the scene. Most of them were too decomposed to do a proper necropsy. But what there was was a lot of insect evidence. And I used forensic entomology, which is the study of insects in legal cases, to establish time of death. And that became very important in this case because neglect typically is charged as a misdemeanor. And because of the massive amount of animals that had died, what we were trying to do was find a way to charge this as a felony.

So what we used in this case was the time of death, which we backdated to approximately the end of October the previous year. And then, during our search of the home we found paperwork to show that she had obtained more cats after all those 130 cats were dead. In our laws we have to prove knowingly and maliciously as far as intent. And so the district attorney felt that that was enough to charge her with a felony.

GROSS: So, how do you use insects in forensic analysis of tortured or killed animals?

Dr. MERCK: I use insects to determine the time of death or the time of injury. Sometimes there are, the fly larva, which are maggots, they are present on a live animal that has been injured and that'll tell me how long ago the animal was injured and they also are used to determine time of death.

GROSS: What was her story? Like why was she collecting so many cats and then either killing or allowing them to die?

Dr. MERCK: Well, the necropsy on the ones that I could do showed that they had died of starvation. The mentality behind hoarding is complicated. There's several studies and ongoing research that's done on them. Traditionally, the typical hoarder has supposedly good intentions at the beginning and then there's some trigger in their life, a death of a loved one, loss of a job, some kind of severe stressor in their life that then flips a switch, so to speak, and they start neglecting their animals.

I believe that there's some subcategories in some of the cases that I've seen, not particularly in this one, where there may be some element of some kind of Munchausen by proxy where they're trying to get attention by taking some of the animals to the vet. And then some of them, I don't believe that they fall into the hoarding category at all. I feel that they're truly just sadistic killers of animals.

There was a case just recently, once again in Ohio, where a woman confessed that she had been drowning puppies and kittens or puppies and cats and dogs over - I'm not even sure of the time period - but up to 650 animals, and like that's not a hoarder. There's something else going on there.

GROSS: What is one of the mysteries that you helped solve that you're most proud of?

Dr. MERCK: I think the assistance on a case that I had recently is the one that I was the most happy with that we got a conviction as well. Of course, the outcome was good. This was a case where a man had shot his neighbor's dog. And there was a lot of problems with the case. He had a history of shooting a black Lab puppy when he was on his riding lawnmower trying to claim self-defense, and this was, of course, several years ago and he actually was acquitted. So he had this history in his neighborhood of shooting animals, not liking animals. And the neighbor who lived behind him had a standard poodle, female. Those are very friendly dogs. The dog somehow got out between their fences and into his yard. The owner immediately went running around to get the dog and she heard the dog yelp and heard the gunshot.

Now, no one saw who shot the dog. All we knew is where the dog was when she was shot in his yard. So the problem was the defendant claimed that he didn't shoot the dog. He didn't claim self-defense. He just claimed that he flat out didn't shoot the dog. So we had a problem. And she was shot with an air rifle and was fatally wounded and died later that day. So what I brought to the table with the prosecutor was like that because it was an air gun and an air rifle, it's not a very loud firearm. So the fact that she heard the shot placed her in close proximity to where the gunshot was fired.

So what I decided, I said why don't we go to the neighborhood and take some pictures and do some trajectories and determine where the areas the shot could've been fired from. And so what we did in that surrounding area is interviewed all the neighbors, found out - and they all testified on the stand - that none of them owned that kind of firearm. And we were able to show that there was only one other yard that that shot could've come from. And he had an alibi and all the neighbors also owned pets except for the defendant. And the judge accepted our circumstantial evidence.

We did a diagram and everything and I testified there was one specific piece of evidence that the dog, where she ran to in the yard was abnormal as far as behavior when injured or fearful. She ran away from her mom. And that was supportive of where he was standing when he shot the dog because in order for the dog to have come to the mother, she would've had to got closer to him. So that was also a behavioral confirmation that he shot the dog and we got...

GROSS: What was his sentence?

Dr. MERCK: He was sentenced to one year. It was charged at - excuse me. It was charged as a misdemeanor so the maximum we could get was one year.

GROSS: When you started doing forensic veterinary work after years of just being, you know, a regular veterinarian, there wasn't a lot that was written about animal forensics. So I know that you studied human forensics and went to human autopsies to try to get your bearings with animal forensics. What are some of the things that like transferred quite nicely between human and animal forensics and others that really didn't at all, things that are really unique to animal forensics that you're not going to learn by studying human forensics?

Dr. MERCK: I think that the main thing that does not transfer from human forensics to animals is bruising. Animals do not bruise like humans and if they do bruise, it can take hours to show up. And so, that can be a barrier also with law enforcement and investigation of these cases because they don't - if they can't see the bruising then they don't really understand how that there was blunt force trauma.

Of course, we have some different kinds of injury that we're not going to see in humans, like imbedded collars, collars that grow into the skin of animals and we have certainly different kinds of infections that occur in animals. And so, there's enough unique identifiers of animals that do separate it out from the human forensic side.

GROSS: Now when you mention that animals don't bruise, is that just that we don't see their bruises because they're covered by fur or do they really like not bruise?

Dr. MERCK: They really rarely bruise. There are certain areas that do bruise and certainly if they're skin is lighter, their fur color is lighter, they're more susceptible to showing a bruise. But their bruising is under the skin and their skin is so thick they don't have as big of a vascular supply - blood vessels to their skin, which is really their makeup because of getting into fights, running through woods and so forth. They don't - they aren't made to bleed very easily from their skin, and so that's why we don't see the bruising.

GROSS: How many animals do you have?

Dr. MERCK: I have two dogs and 15 cats.

GROSS: But you're not a hoarder, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MERCK: That's what...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MERCK: Well, we should define hoarding as those that have more animals than they can take care of. No, most of mine have been rescued, neglected, abandoned and I have a very large home that can accommodate them.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. MERCK: Thank you.

GROSS: Dr. Melinda Merck is the senior director of veterinary forensic sciences for the ASPCA. Our interview was recorded in 2007.

Coming up, Margaret McLaughlin describes her experiences rescuing animals from the floods of Hurricane Katrina as our Animal Week series continues. This is FRESH AIR.

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