Animal CSI Animal Forensics

animal csi

Above: Animal CSI Unit of the ASPCA Forensics Team. Photo courtesy of the ASPCA

Animal CSI?

You bet!

Animal forensics is something that began back in the late 1980s but that only began to surface as a viable animal career recently. But it got the attention of the media back in 2009 with the first Animal Crime Scene class at the University of Florida.

The fairly new Veterinary Forensics Medicine Sciences program at the University of Florida, Gainesville is the first of its kind in a major university and is directed by Melinda Merck, a veterinarian who also works as the ASPCA’s senior director of veterinary forensics.

She also has the distinction of serving as the head of the new mobile CSI unit and is the author of Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty: A Guide for Veterinary and Law Enforcement Professionals (with Randall Lockwood and Leslie Sinclair).

The first time animal forensics caught my attention was when the US Department of Wildlife opened their forensics laboratory in Oregon.

Although work began to open the wildlife forensics laboratory in the mid-1980s, it officially opened in 1989.

A few years later (1991), the lab became known as the Clark R. Bavin National Fish & Wildlife Forensic Laboratory.

The lab has grown from a staff of ten to that of a group of more than 30 professionals and you can read about it in Animal Investigators by Laurel Neme.

Accreditation was received from the American Society of Crime Lab Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) in 1997, and within a year it became the official crime lab of the Wildlife Working Group of Interpol and of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Originally housed inside a 23,000 square foot building at Southern Oregon University, a 17,000 square foot addition was completed in 2008–indicating the growing need to serve the industry.

The wildlife forensics lab has several roles that include the goals to:

  • Identify the species or subspecies of pieces, parts or products of an animal.
  • Determine the cause-of-death of an animal.
  • Help wildlife officers determine if a violation of law has occurred.
  • Identify and compare physical evidence in an attempt to link suspect, victim and crime scene.

The wildlife forensic specialists conduct crime scene investigations, examine evidence, and provide expert witness testimony in court while working to support over 200 Special Agents and Wildlife Inspectors throughout the United States,

Another blip on the animal career radar was the first annual Veterinary Forensic Sciences Conference which was hosted by the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, University of Florida.

The campus also hosts the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association (IVFSA) whose purpose is to:

  • Promote the health, welfare and safety of animals through the fostering of current, new, and novel techniques of forensic science and crime scene processing to circumstances of animal abuse, neglect, cruelty, fighting, and death.
  • Apply forensic science techniques to legal investigations involving animals as the victim of criminal offenses and civil disputes.
  • Educate the animal welfare community, law enforcement, crime scene analysts, forensic scientists, veterinarians, attorneys, judges, and pathologists on the application of forensic science techniques and crime scene processing methods to cases of animal abuse, neglect, cruelty, fighting, and death.
  • Inform the law enforcement and legal community on the various scientific disciplines that can be utilized for the interpretation of collected physical evidence related to any crime scene where an animal’s presence or absence is relevant.
  • Advance and foster excellence in the veterinary forensic sciences.

In 2010, the ASPCA co-hosted the third annual Veterinary Forensic Sciences Conference and unveiled the new Mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation Unit (a Subaru Outback). Here is a video of the Animal CSI.

So, the statement their vet is the only Animal CSI is in error as there are other forensic animal specialists that have been working in the field for some time.

However, what is clear is that this is a growing field and if you are interested in, or fascinated by, investigative work–this might be the animal career for you.


Capistrano Swallows

swallows return to capistrano

The annual swallows return to Capistrano is a popular event, and as a native of southern California, I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed the arrival of the swallows of Capistrano more than once. I say fortunate because over the past few years the avian visitors have gone missing–and the swallows have actually headed for the hills.

The famed swallows of Capistrano have relocated to less urbanized areas and are showing up in the San Bernardino Mountains (Big Bear Lake) while others have taken up residence at other areas around southern California including the Vellano Country Club in Chino Hills. Only a few can be found under freeway overpasses not too far away from the San Juan Capistrano Mission.

san juan capistrano swallows

Just why the swallows migration has changed is up for speculation.

Locals and visitors alike have celebrated the annual migration of the swallows for as long as some of us can remember, and it is disappointing to those who show up for the Swallows Day Parade only to find the avian ambassadors missing.

The annual swallow migration has received a lot of attention over the years. For instance, Leon Rene’s 1939 hit, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano song lyrics are a tribute to the long migration.

The amazing journey takes the swallows over 12,000 miles round-trip. They abandon their winter haven in Goya, Corrientes, Argentina and travel to southern California, arriving on St Joseph’s Day (March 19th) and then begin the return trip to Argentina on the Day of San Juan (October 23rd).

Some people mistakenly confuse sparrows with the swallows who migrate to Capistrano, but it is actually a species of cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) that migrates.

It used to be that scouts arrived a few days prior to the main flock who would arrive in large numbers shortly after. The swallows are known for their energetic movements and their jug-shaped nests of mud and clay. Upon arrival, they quickly rebuild the mud nests clinging under the eves of buildings in the area and begin rearing their young.

Centuries ago the San Juan Capistrano Mission padres noticed that the swallows returned consistently on St. Joseph’s Day. The tradition of celebrating the swallows return to Capistrano began then and people would arrive from around the world to officially welcome the birds back. Today the people still come but just why the birds no longer do remains a mystery.

At one time, the Mission also offered the highest, most protected perches in the area but it seems that construction and other changes have made the location less attractive to the birds. Another influencing factor may be that the California mission once provided an abundant food source (insects) but as the insect population decreased due to urbanization and the continued development of the area, most birds seem to have relocated.

To try and sort out just why the swallow migration changed, the Mission called upon Charles R. Brown, an ornithologist from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma,to see if they could find ways to attract the swallows back to the area–but it doesn’t look promising.

So for now, I enjoy the birds from my perch above the lake near Big Bear. You can enjoy them too if you decide to try and see them near their arrival date in their new locations.

In the meantime, I invite you to enjoy these two short videos from other regions in California where these winged travelers can now be found.

Cliff Swallow Photo Credit: Ingrid Taylor