CSI: Dog-Fighting DNA Database Helps Crack Down on Animal Cruelty

Successful prosecutions of animal cruelty cases rely on any number of things: credible witnesses, expert testimony, photographs, and other evidence. Often times, however, it's the evidence that we can't see--DNA--that is just as important as what we can see.

Like people, all animals have unique DNA, and, as in human crime investigations, only a small amount of cells is necessary to provide DNA evidence that can help solve a crime.

Dog fighting, a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise that leads to the cruel treatment and deaths of thousands of dogs nationwide every year, is one such crime where DNA evidence has proven to be helpful. Today, the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the Humane Society of Missouri (HSMO), the Louisiana SPCA (LA/SPCA), and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, announced the creation of the nation's first criminal dog-fighting DNA database.

Called the "Canine CODIS" (Combined DNA Index System), the database will help the criminal justice system investigate and prosecute dog fighting cases and address the growing problem of dog fighting using 21st century technology.

The Canine CODIS contains individual DNA profiles from dogs that have been seized during dog-fighting investigations and from unidentified samples collected at suspected dog-fighting venues. The HSMO provided the initial 400 samples of dog DNA collected from dogs that were seized last July during the nation's largest dog-fighting seizure ever.

The database is similar to the FBI's human CODIS, a computerized archive that stores DNA profiles from criminal offenders and crime scenes and is used in criminal and missing persons investigations. In dog-fighting investigations, the dogs' inner cheeks are swabbed to collect DNA in their saliva, and DNA is gathered in samples of blood, saliva, tissue, bones, teeth, feces and urine. These samples are submitted to UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory for DNA testing, where the database is housed, and the DNA is analyzed and the Canine CODIS database searched for corresponding profiles.

This database is designed solely for use by law enforcement agencies in building stronger cases where DNA evidence might show relationships between suspects and such evidence. It is not intended to provide a profile of specific individuals for purposes of breed identification and cannot be used in that way.

The use of highly sophisticated forensic techniques to tie evidence back to animal abusers is becoming more and more essential, as juries experience the "CSI effect" of feeling that investigators have not done their jobs if some scientific evidence is not introduced. This is discussed at length in the recent feature in The New York Times Magazine called "The Animal Cruelty Syndrome," which explores the work of Dr. Melinda Merck, Senior Director of Veterinary Forensic Sciences for the ASPCA, and Dr. Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA's Senior Vice President of Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects. Drs. Merck and Lockwood have between them more than 40 years of experience in applying scientific methods to the investigation and analysis of animal cruelty and authored the first two textbooks in the field of veterinary forensics. They and others agree that with the Canine CODIS, DNA analysis and matching will help us dig deeper to establish links among owners, breeders, and dog fighting sites. It can tie blood spatter on pit walls and clothing, or blood trails found outside of fighting pits, to a specific dog or dogs. This will allow us to tell the victims' stories--to be the voice of those animals that cannot speak for themselves.

The veterinary forensic science underlying the Canine CODIS and ASPCA's other anti-cruelty efforts are providing powerful tools to address the growing realization that investigating and prosecuting crimes against animals is essential for the protection of animals and people alike.

For more information on the Canine CODIS database, click here.