Inside the Lab Part 2: How DNA researchers are helping crack animal cruelty cases

FOX 35 is airing a three-part exclusive series on the science of solving crime. 

Sometimes, forensics answers about crimes involving victims without a voice: animals. 

Researchers at the University of Florida’s Veterinary Forensic Sciences Laboratory use some of the latest tools to find breakthroughs in animal cruelty investigations. FOX 35 got exclusive access to see the technology cracking real-life cases.

"Without the evidence, you don’t have a court case, right?" said Dr. Jason Byrd, a Professor of Medicine and researcher in UF’s veterinary forensics lab. 

The scientists there look at every piece of a puzzle. That includes puzzle pieces big enough to need a hydraulic table and those small enough to need a microscope. 

"We travel all over the country and all over the world, being able to provide expert witness testimony," said Dr. Byrd. 

FOX 35 was actually right there for a break in a big case.

Inside the Lab Part 1: How forensic analysts at UF are solving wildlife crimes worldwide

A forensic DNA analyst, Ginger Clark, realized the data she’d just processed could help land a conviction in a federal dog fighting case. 

"With these kinds of results, it shuts down large dogfighting rings and all of the things that go with the dogfighting. So money laundering, drugs, arms, all kinds of other things that are associated with the dogfighting," said Clark.

The scientists at UF’s lab work directly with law enforcement and animal control to assist with animal cruelty cases. Dr. Adam Stern, Professor of Forensic Pathology at UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine, showed FOX 35’s crew around an autopsy suite. 

That’s where pathologists figure out how an animal died. 

Although DNA analysts who FOX 35 spoke to within another portion of our series said they prefer not to know many details on a case as they’re doing their work, Dr. Stern says pathologists are the opposite. They want all the case context they can get before they begin an autopsy. 

Dr. Stern says his work is a partnership with law enforcement officers. 


"They tell us what was going on in the case, what they suspect might have happened," said Dr. Stern. "Then we will use the science of veterinary medicine, dissecting the animal so that we can say, yes, that is what happened. Or maybe give an alternative scenario of what happened to the animal."

They use all sorts of tech to help with this, and FOX 35 got to see a lot of it.

That included microscopy, which helps identify what led to an animal’s death. Scientists can see patterns telling whether a parasite or poison may have contributed to an animal’s death. 

UF is experimenting with AI tech right now to help with that identification. That would make some of their work go faster.

3D printers can make it a bit easier. The pathologists print out models to show off in court, like one demonstrating bone cancer that Dr. Stern says a pet owner neglected to treat.

"We can show a jury the normal; this is what a normal dog looks like. And this is what a diseased dog looks like," said Dr. Stern, holding up two 3D-printed examples.

Genealogy and DNA sequencing are another significant part of the work done in this lab.

"It's a very big deal. I'm proud," said Clark. 

Ginger Clark used that same technology to help identify people who’d died in a building collapse in Surfside.

Others in UF’s lab did the same thing for victims of 9/11.

UF does research human-related cases, too. FOX 35 is talking more about that in another part of our series.