New Frontiers: Pets Solving Crime, Cat DNA Databases and Veterinary Forensics

aspca animal forensic veterinarian

Image credit: aspca.org

Pet DNA is helping solve hundreds of crimes around the world.

Who knew that something as common as shedding, feces, and drool have actually provided enough DNA to track criminals down and put them behind bars? Transferred animal hairs are frequently found on clothing, vehicles, bodies, weapons, and bedding.

Pet DNA Database

One forensic tool that has been developed in several countries is the establishment of a pet DNA database. Like the human version, these DNA banks help to establish the hard science behind the pet evidence found at crime scenes.

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In the "Tinker" case (further down), UK law enforcement was able to use a cat DNA database to prove how unique the DNA of individual cats actually is. This led to the conviction of a murderer.

As we understand the forensic links between pets in the home and their use as evidence in criminal cases, new fields have grown in forensic science.

Along with pet DNA databases and genetics, the rapidly emerging science of veterinary forensics has proven to be quite helpful in both investigating animal cruelty, and helping to solve crimes.

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What does a Forensic Veterinarian do?

Veterinary forensics is now taught at many veterinary schools. A forensic veterinarian's job is to identify, collect and evaluate evidence from animals. They can use their veterinary knowledge to help figure out what happened to an abused or deceased animal, as well as assist law enforcement in analyzing crime scene evidence.

Elizabeth Wictum, Director of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California Davis, commented, "If you think about it, people are just another species. And so all those tools that are used on humans, we can use on animals." 

In an article on aspca.org, forensic vet Rachel Touroo described her job this way:

"A Forensic Veterinarian’s job is to identify, collect and assess evidence from animals and their environment.  I use veterinary medical knowledge to put together the pieces of a puzzle to try to answer the questions asked of me by law enforcement and the courts in an unbiased and objective manner. I often act as a “teacher” to clearly convey the evidence which falls into my realm of expertise, based in science and fact, to assist the judge and/or jury in understanding the evidence at hand, in essence, act as an advocate for the truth."

Animal forensics is a field still in progress. The International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association or IVFSA is an example of an organization that provides training and certification.

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True Crime Cases Solved Using Pet DNA

The very things that annoy pet owners ... the shedding, drooling and feces to constantly clean up... provide a TREASURE TROVE of forensic evidence for investigators. Whether it's proving that a suspect was at the scene or establishing a link between homes, pet DNA is proving to be the perfect "connector" for law enforcement.

It's nearly impossible to avoid transferring DNA material from pets onto your clothing and other objects in the home. Anyone who has ever visited a friend wearing a black sweater (and come home looking like sasquatch) knows that even being in a pet home for a few minutes will often be enough to transfer the animal's hair.

Pets are also extremely loyal, often fighting off the attackers of their owners and leaving tell-tale scars from their nails, teeth .. and in the case below ... beak.

Here are some examples of some actual true crime cases solved with the help of pets...

1. Snowball the Groundbreaking Cat

In this episode of Forensic Files, animal hair was introduced in a groundbreaking criminal case. In 1994, fur from a white cat was introduced as evidence in a murder trail.

One of the suspects had a white cat named Snowball. Investigators found some of the cats fur on the victims bloody jacket. The DNA from Snowball's fur put the criminal behind bars for 18 years.

 

2. Tinker and the Pet DNA Database

pet dna database forensic veterinarian
Image credit: nbcnews.com

In 2012, a murder was solved for the first time in the UK using something that had never been explored before: a pet DNA database.

The suspect was convicted of manslaughter after prosecutors drew a genetic link between his pet cat, Tinker, and cat hairs found at the crime scene.

From the case file article on NBC news:

In July 2012, the dismembered torso of Hampshire resident David Guy was found on a Southsea beach, wrapped in a curtain on which eight cat hairs were found. Constables sent the hairs to California for analysis of the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from a mama cat to her kittens. Hairs from suspect David Hilder's cat were analyzed as well — and the tests came up with a match.

The Hampshire Constabulary paid for a series of tests of blood samples from British cats, conducted by Ph.D. student Barbara Ottolini with the cooperation of vets across the country. When 152 cats were tested, only three of the samples came back with a mitochondrial DNA match to the hairs on the curtain, confirming that the genetic signature was uncommon.

Those findings were factored into the case against Hilder, a neighbor of Guy's who was convicted of manslaughter last month in Winchester Crown Court and sentenced to life in prison.

 

3. Dog Feces and the Mess that Solved a Crime

dog feces dna testing crime solving

You know that annoying dog poo that ended up on your runners the last time you went for a walk? Well, it's sending offenders to prison.

From an article found on Davis Enterprise:

"Dog feces pick up DNA-bearing epithelial cells from the colon on their way out. When those feces are found on the shoe of a suspect — one who claims not to have been anywhere near the scene of a crime where matching poop was found — a case may be cracked.

These are the clues prized by a tiny, three-person laboratory at UC Davis — the only accredited forensic lab in the country dealing in animal evidence.

“The shoe scraping I got, I remember, was just enough to cover the top of a pencil top, maybe a millimeter tall,” said Teri Kun, a scientist at the forensic lab of UCD’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, recalling a triple-murder case in Indiana in 2000.

The profile from the suspect’s shoe matched a sample from the only dog on the property where the slayings occurred. The killer — who also left behind a shoe print in a poop patty — is now serving life in prison."

 

4. Bird the Cockatoo Hero

A Texas man was murdered in his home. It is suspected that his pet cockatoo had tried to fend off the attacker by pecking at them.

Unfortunately the killer stabbed Bird the cockatoo with a fork, leaving him lifeless. Even though Bird passed away, he died a hero.

Investigators found blood on the cockatoos beak and claws that led them to the killer. The killer was sentenced for life in prison for his role in the murder.

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Want to read more about crazy DNA evidence cases?

Check out our article on how DNA Test Reveals Jack the Ripper's Identity.

 

 

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