When an animal seized by police is brought to an ASPCA facility, medical staff examine the animal for signs of trauma or neglect. Photo: Courtesy of the ASPCA

Unlike most forms of evidence, which can be tucked away into a box or envelope, animals who have been abused, neglected or connected with a crime require special resources and care to ensure their well-being while in police custody.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals partners with the NYPD and other law enforcement nationally to house animals, care for them and collect evidence from them, a process that will be covered by ASPCA staff Jennifer Chin and Marny Nofi in their session “Animals As Evidence” at the 10th Annual Veterinary Forensic Sciences Conference on May 16. The agenda for this year’s conference was announced this month.  

“Typically law enforcement, when they gather evidence, they’re putting them in an evidence locker and you sort of just file that away. You obviously can’t do that with living animals,” explains Chin, vice president of legal advocacy for the ASPCA, in an interview with Forensic Magazine. “So there usually is sort of a partnership with local animal welfare organizations, public or private.”

In cases of animal cruelty, such as abuse, neglect or animal fighting, the ASPCA cooperates with police and prosecutors by conducting forensic examinations of animals, looking at their physical health, their behavior and for any signs of trauma.

“They’ll do a full examination upon intake,” explains Nofi, senior manager of the Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team at the ASPCA, in a Forensic Magazine interview. “What we’re trying to do is document how this animal came in, so that way they can see if with proper care (…) feeding them properly, grooming them properly, if there’s going to be a change in the overall well-being of the animal.”

For example, an animal that has been neglected or abused may be underweight when it is taken into police custody and then transferred to an ASPCA facility, Nofi explains. “Without going above and beyond,” she says, ASPCA staff will provide the animal with regular meals and track its progress.

“It shows that just feeding it normal meals caused the animal to gain an appropriate amount of weight which can then be used (…) to support a claim of either cruelty or neglect,” Nofi says.

ASPCA medical staff will also do bloodwork and X-rays, and check the animal’s body for injuries. Results from a physical examination, combined with a behavioral examination, can support a case of animal cruelty in court, including in cases of animal fighting, especially dogfighting.

“We videotape them and get footage of how they might be with other dogs, and then that evidence can be later used in court,” Nofi says. “Then that can be linked to any kind of medical information they might have, like if the dog came in with bite wounds or old scars that medical staff feels is from bites.”

On the legal side of things, advocates like Chin work with the courts to ensure the ASPCA facility has full permission to collect forensic evidence from the animals, and to make important emergency medical decisions for the well-being of an animal, if necessary.

“When we work with law enforcement and prosecutors around the country, including New York City, we urge them to get or to include in the search warrant application authorization to conduct a forensic examination of the animal,” Chin says. Chin also explains there can be some legal obstacles when it comes to ownership of the animals, and in preparing seized animals that may have been neglected or abused for potential adoption while their accused abuser is being prosecuted.

ASPCA staff provide medical treatment, quality of life care and enrichment programs that include socialization to animals that are seized in criminal investigations. Once previous ownership is forfeited and the animal is healthy, it can go up for adoption to a new home. Photo: Courtesy of the ASPCA

Options for an animal to be allowed placement in a new home include voluntary relinquishment by the former owner, which is the quickest method; court-ordered pre-conviction forfeiture, which is allowed by some state statutes; and forfeiture as part of a plea agreement or criminal penalty, which can mean the animal must be held for a longer period of time as the criminal case proceeds, Chin explains.

Once former ownership of an animal is relinquished, the ASPCA can prepare the animal to go up for adoption if possible. However, in the case of severe suffering of an animal despite medical intervention, or in the case of an animal whose behavior poses a danger to humans or other animals, the ASPCA may need to humanely euthanize the animal, a decision they work with prosecutors to gain permission for.

For animals that are eligible for placement into new homes, ASPCA staff implement enrichment programs for the animals’ physical and behavioral well-being, socializing them with humans and with other animals. Although the ASPCA mainly works with cats and dogs, they can also provide these enrichment programs to other animals, such as birds rescued from cockfighting.

“We partner with other organizations and experts, whether they’re housing—for example, farm animals—or if they’re sort of consulting and helping us provide enrichment for a species that we may not typically have in our care,” says Nofi.

Overall, cooperation between law enforcement, courts, the ASPCA and other animal welfare organizations come together to both aid in criminal investigations and to create the best outcome for animals that have been the victims of neglect, abuse and cruelty.

The 10th Annual Veterinary Forensic Sciences Conference, hosted by the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association in partnership with the ASPCA, will be held May 16-18 at the Westin Times Square in New York City.