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Veterinary forensics: animals curtailing crime.

At midnight, you and your family are asleep. Suddenly, you awaken to a crash downstairs. You immediately get out of the bed to investigate the cause of the noise and find a broken window. After you call 911, a crime scene unit arrives and discovers impression evidence in dog feces near the broken window. The unit protects the scene, takes pictures, and collects samples. The next day, police apprehend a suspect and find evidence of dog feces on the sole of one of his shoes. Not only is the sole impression the same but DNA testing of the feces confirms that it matches what authorities collected at the crime scene as well.


This hypothetical situation presents just one way that veterinary forensics (i.e., the use of animals, particularly their DNA) can provide vital assistance to law enforcement professionals conducting a criminal investigation. (1) Many owners have a close association with their animals and often have traces of the pets, such as hair and saliva, on them. In some cases, the animal's blood, urine, and feces may be in the owner's surroundings. (2) Subsequently, the analysis of animal DNA may prove invaluable to investigators. (3)



Using animals to assist law enforcement is not new. In 1903, the Bavarian military developed an innovative technique of spying through the use of pigeons. A tiny camera that took a picture every 30 seconds was attached to the breast area of the pigeon, which then flew behind enemy lines and eventually back to its starting point while capturing photographs of an adversary's operations. Notes often were attached to the pigeons' legs to transport messages. Such use of pigeons ended when cameras were discovered underneath them; the enemy simply shot the airborne pigeons. (4) Advancements in forensic photography would allow law enforcement the ability to reinstitute surveillance via animals, although using pigeons may be dated.

Animals can help investigators in three ways: as witnesses, perpetrators, and victims. Each method has a different purpose.


"Witnesses who can't speak often provide the most eloquent evidence." (5) Animals serve as witnesses when they successfully place the suspect at a crime scene. For example, the victim's animal can transfer evidence, such as hair, saliva, blood, urine, or feces, (6) from the animal to the suspect or crime scene. Or, the suspect's animal can transfer it to the victim or crime scene. In one case, a female was working in her lawn. A man pulled up in his truck and forced her inside the vehicle to sexually assault her. During this offense, the victim noticed her dog urinating on the suspect's vehicle tire. Fortunately, she was able to fight off the man and phone the police. During interviews, the victim described the truck and informed officers of her observations, but she was unable to distinguish the suspect in a lineup. Investigators performed DNA testing of the dog's urine on the tire and identified a suspect who was later apprehended. (7)

In another example of the animal as a witness, a macaw helped catch a suspect in a burglary case. Blood samples from the suspect on the bird's beak and marks found on the suspect, both from the parrots' assault, were tested. Using the blood and impression evidence, police apprehended the suspect. (8) The bird not only provided physical evidence of the crime but chronological proof as well. Investigators pinpointed the exact time of the encounter after neighbors reported hearing the bird "hooting hysterically." (9)


DNA evidence obtained from a crime scene often can identify an animal involved in an attack on a human or another animal. For example, a doctor was convicted of two counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count of reckless homicide, and one of assault after his two dogs attacked and killed a woman. The doctor's dogs were linked to the crime through animal DNA evidence. (10) In another example, a woman's cat was killed by another animal. She suspected her neighbor's dog, which she had noticed in her yard numerous times. When investigators conducted DNA tests, the culprit actually was a bobcat, and, thus, an innocent animal's life was spared." (11)


Victims may include abused or stolen animals. (12) Investigators can match DNA evidence from a weapon to the victim in cases of abuse. Further, they can use DNA to establish rightful owners of animals. In one instance, a man was sentenced to 60 months of formal probation and restitution in the amount of $22,000 for grand theft cattle. After stealing the cattle from a ranch, the rustler rudimentarily changed the brand. During a cattle sale, the brand inspector noticed that the mark looked strange. When the rustler failed to prove ownership through invoice purchases, an investigation began. Through the use of DNA testing, investigators discovered that the cow had been born from one on the neighboring farm. (13)


With some innovation, nontraditional means of veterinary forensics also may aid investigators. Canines are not the only animals that law enforcement agencies can use to find narcotics; one department utilized potbellied pigs. According to experts, the potbellied pig's sense of hearing and smell is exemplary and significantly greater than humans. (14) In one demonstration, within 30 seconds, a potbellied pig discovered a small box containing marijuana wrapped in canvas cloth. (15)

After an 18-month project, researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico trained bees to detect explosives. (16) Bees were exposed to the distinctive smell of explosives followed by sugar water. Through operant conditioning, the bees were trained to stick out their proboscis when they detected the smell of explosives. (17)

In addition, fish have been used to detect potential terror attacks. Bluegills have a highly tuned monitoring system concerning chemical imbalances in their surrounding environment. As a result, they currently help safeguard major drinking water supplies. Using a computerized monitoring system, detection of even the slightest change in the bluegills' vital signs will send an e-mail alert to authorities to warn of potential danger. (18)

In another parrot-related case, thieves stole a parrot during a burglary. As the parrot was hauled off, the owner came out screaming, "Robbery! Robbery!" A short time later, police stopped a vehicle for a traffic violation. As the officers approached the vehicle, the parrot called out, "Robbery! Robbery!" which aroused their suspicions. A subsequent search of the vehicle revealed the stolen goods. (19)


All evidence, whether human or animal, should be collected by trained law enforcement personnel or other officials who can testify to its collection. Not only does this ensure the reliability of its collection but the continuity of the chain of custody. Investigators should take every possible precaution to ensure the integrity of a crime scene, including minimizing contamination by animals, which can transfer evidence and other trace materials to and from the area.

Whether functioning as victims, suspects, witnesses, or even agents of law enforcement, animals can aid investigations in a variety of ways. Although the use of veterinary forensics is still in its infancy, agencies are rapidly seeing the capabilities of the creatures around them and are using their assistance more often in an effort to curtail crime.




(3) The use of canines in law enforcement is well documented; therefore, their discussion in this article is limited.

(4) "Bavarian Pigeon Corps," The Cause (March 2002); retrieved from

(5) Ibid.

(6) University of California-Davis, "About Forensic DNA Testing"; retrieved from

(7) Fresh Air, NPR, February 14, 2006.

(8) James L. McClinton, "In Search of Intelligent Life: When Birdbrains Collide," Police and Security News 22, no. 3: 96.

(9) Ibid.

(10) "Doctor Sentenced for Dog-Mauling Incident"; retrieved from

(11) Supra note 6.

(12) Supra note 6.

(13) Juliana Barbassa, "Cattle Rustlers Defeated by DNA"; retrieved from

(14) Tod W. Burke, "Pot Bellied Pigs: High Quality Sniffers of Narcotics," Law and Order, September 2003.

(15) Ibid.

(16) John Locher, "Bees-All They Can Be," The Washington Post, November 29, 2006.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Marcus Wohlsen, "Fish Used to Detect Terror Attacks," The Police One, September 21, 2001; retrieved from

(19) "Parrot Helped Catch Robbers"; retrieved from

For further information concerning the use of veterinary forensics in law enforcement, visit

Mr. Yost is a graduate student at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.

Dr. Burke, a former police officer, is a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.

BY Joseph Yost and Tod Burke, Ph.D.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Title Annotation:Focus on Forensics
Author:Yost, Joseph; Burke, Tod
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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