So, you want to be a veterinary forensic scientist?

What is forensic science? The forensic sciences are used to resolve civil disputes, to justly enforce criminal laws and government regulations, and to protect public health.

What is veterinary forensic science? Veterinary forensic scientists may be involved anytime an objective, scientific analysis is needed to find the truth and to seek justice in a legal proceeding involving an animal. All forensic science is objective, unbiased, and applies equally to either side of any criminal, civil, or other legal matter. Veterinary forensic science can be applied for the good of society, public and animal health, welfare & safety.

A forensic scientist is first a scientist. When any scientist’s knowledge is used to help lawyers, juries, and judges understand the results of scientific tests, the scientist becomes a forensic scientist. Science is a vital tool in the search for the truth in any legal proceeding. The major difference between criminal forensic science and veterinary or wildlife forensic science is that the victim (and occasionally the suspect) or evidence of a crime is an animal.

In criminal matters involving animals, scientific analyses and tests conducted by qualified forensic scientists can exonerate as well as convict a person accused of animal abuse. In civil cases, such as a lawsuit for damages from a dog bite, analysis by a qualified forensic scientist (veterinarian, dog behavior specialist, odontologist) may be used by either side to address the validity of the allegations in the suit.

Writing skill Regardless of the type of legal proceeding or which side uses scientific evidence, the forensic scientist must be able to write a report and testify under oath about: what facts or items of evidence were analyzed or tested; what tests or analyses were used; how valid or reliable those tests or analyses have been found to be by other courts; why and how the forensic scientist was qualified to conduct those tests or analyses; and, what the results of the tests or analyses were and how those results are relevant to the issues in dispute.

Detail oriented & unbiased Because the work of a forensic scientist is intended to be used in court and because scientific evidence can be very powerful, the forensic scientist must be accurate, methodical, detailed, and above all, unbiased. The ability to keep detailed notes and to write clear, concise, and accurate reports is vital. The forensic scientist must be able to determine which facts or items of evidence are relevant. In animal cases, the – the animal will be presented to a veterinarian for examination and analysis.

Most cases of suspected animal maltreatment involve veterinary examination of a live or deceased animal or animals. In other cases, the forensic veterinary examiner may need (or want) to personally go to the scene to conduct an on-site analysis, gather evidence, or document facts for later analysis. Having been provided or having gathered the relevant information, the forensic scientist then has to decide which examinations, tests, or analyses are appropriate – and relevant – to the issue(s) in dispute. (Are those marks evidence of an animal trying to escape? Did natural disease or an accident cause the findings?) Then, the forensic scientist or veterinarian must conduct the most appropriate tests/analyses and document the process.

Afterward, the forensic examiner must interpret the results and write a clear, concise report documenting the steps followed to reach this conclusion or opinion. The forensic veterinarian will, at some point, have to testify. Testimony is the verbal statement of a witness, under oath, to the judge or jury. Forensic scientists are “expert” witnesses as opposed to ordinary or “fact” witnesses.

Expert witnesses are permitted to testify not just about what the results of testing or analysis were (“facts”), but also to give an opinion about what those results mean. For example, a forensic veterinarian may testify about the observed, factual results of an animal's behavior or condition and that, in their expert opinion, the behavior or condition was consistent with an animal that had been maltreated.

To qualify as an expert witness, the forensic scientist must have a solid, documented background of education, training, and experience in the scientific discipline used to conduct the examinations, testing, or analyses about which the forensic scientist wants to testify. Sometimes in court, the work or qualifications of the forensic scientist are challenged. A party to a court case may challenge whether the scientist performed the tests correctly; whether the scientist interpreted the results accurately; or, whether the underlying science is valid and reliable. Finally, a party to a court case may challenge whether the scientist is properly qualified to render an expert opinion or question the scientist’s impartiality.

How Do I Become a Veterinary Forensic Examiner or specialist? You will need:

  • A bachelor’s degree – get a degree in science (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.), but also take courses in math, statistics, and writing skills.
  • An advanced degree – some jobs, such as an animal behaviorist or veterinarian require advanced degrees and specialized training. The University of Florida has online certificate and master's degree programs in veterinary forensics.
  • Veterinarians must complete a four-year graduate degree program, pass a national board exam, and hold a valid license to practice veterinary medicine within a given locality. Veterinarians focusing on pathology can undertake a residency program in pathology to further their specialization. VetFolio from NAVC offers an online certificate program for veterinarians that offers a solid basis in veterinary forensics.
  • Good speaking skills – take public speaking; join the drama club, toastmasters, or the debate team.
  • Good note-taking and observation skills – take laboratory courses.
  • The ability to write an understandable scientific report
  • The ability to be unbiased
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Personal integrity

Where will I work? Very few employers hire full time veterinary forensic examiners or forensic veterinarians. The ASPCA is probably the largest employer, and they have a handful of veterinarians that work in New York City and nationally, responding to large cases (e.g. animal hoarding, animal fighting). Some veterinary schools have veterinary pathologists on faculty with an interest in veterinary forensics.

More often, veterinary forensics is a part time pursuit of a veterinarian employed in a municipal or private animal shelter, especially one with a humane law enforcement function. A few veterinarians have established veterinary forensics consulting businesses but most will tell you that they do not make a living through veterinary forensics consulting alone. See here, here, here and here for some examples.

A helpful resource for a veterinarian faced with documenting a case forensically for the first time is the AVMA's Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse and Neglect.

Wildlife forensics The US Fish and Wildlife service and some states employ wildlife forensic scientists. Poaching violations, the development of state and federal hunting regulations, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) are some of the factors that guide wildlife forensics.

The identification of wildlife evidence can be complicated because wildlife enforcement officers rarely seize whole animals which can be readily identified by a museum or zoo expert. More typically parts or the products created from wildlife will be recovered as evidence. The characteristics which define an animal species are rarely present in those parts or products. Wildlife forensic scientists are often required to develop new ways to identify species through research with carefully documented known specimens before they can examine evidence in a case and testify in court.

An additional complication is that, while human forensics deals with only a single species (homo sapiens), wildlife forensic scientists must be prepared to identify evidence from any species in the world that is illegally killed, smuggled, poached, or sold through an illicit market. Examples of wildlife evidence items might be blood on an illegal hunter’s clothing; fresh, frozen, or smoked meats; loose hair; fur coats; reptile leather products, such as purses, belts, and shoes; loose feathers and down; carved ivory objects; sea turtle oil (suntan lotion); shell jewelry; and powdered rhinoceros horn.

While it might seem that wildlife forensic scientists face an overwhelming task in developing new and reliable ID techniques, they do have one advantage over other forensic scientists: sample size is rarely a problem. Example seizures of wildlife evidence have included 20,000 pounds of suspected sea turtle meat, 10,000 pounds of ivory, and 300,000 suspected rhinoceros horn pills.

Veterinary forensics is an exciting field that appeals to many because of a love for animals, scientific curiosity and an interest in justice, but it is currently a field with few established career paths. A dedicated and driven forensic scientist or veterinarian can make veterinary forensics at least a part-time a focus of their work.

If you are considering a career in veterinary forensics, expect the path to be challenging and not financially rewarding, at least to begin with. Society continues to increase demands for justice for harmed animals, and more law enforcement departments are recognizing the link between violence to animals and people. Because of these influences, the field of veterinary forensics will continue to grow, and more opportunities will be available to skilled and dedicated professionals.

This essay is adapted from the So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist brochure from the American Academy of Forensic Scientists.