The Veterinarian’s Role in Equine Abuse Investigations

By Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

The following article is reproduced from “The Horse,”  January 19, 2017

How a veterinarian goes about examining and treating allegedly abused horses can mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful case against the owner. He or she must know how to properly document all findings and avoid destroying evidence while still putting the horse’s welfare first.

Nicole Eller, DVM, a Minnesota-based field shelter veterinarian with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Field Investigations and Response team, described the veterinarian’s unique role in animal crime scene investigations during her presentation at the 2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 3-7 in Orlando, Florida.

First, she reviewed the basics of evidence identification, collection, and preservation. “Evidence is generally defined as anything that can demonstrate or disprove a fact in contention,” said Eller. In equine abuse investigations, this can include anything from photos of a horse’s injuries or body condition to the moldy hay in his feeder.

Veterinarians must view these cases through the lens of someone looking for and collecting evidence. As the equine expert, the veterinarian will recognize key pieces of evidence that other investigators might overlook.

Eller then described the four phases of processing an animal crime scene.

Phase 1: Document the condition of the facility or farm upon arrival

The area will most likely have already been secured by law enforcement and documented via photos and video by the time the veterinarian arrives on the scene.

Phase 2: Document each animal and its environment

The veterinarian will conduct what Eller called “critical triage” during the initial walk-through of the property.

“Critical triage is a rapid visual sorting of animals for treatment priority,” she said. “It’s done to identify animals in immediate need of medical care.”

The practitioner should classify horses needing immediate care as “red animals.” Eller said this might include horses with open fractures, seizures, hemorrhaging, etc.

“Document everything as fast as possible before treating, because the live animal is evidence, and treatment alters evidence,” she said.

After caring for the red animals, Eller said the veterinarian should perform a second walk-through and color-code the remaining animals as yellow (in need of treatment before transport), green (ready for transport), or blue (exhibiting signs of infectious disease).

“Given how horses are typically housed, if one has infectious disease, they may all have it,” said Eller. “But if a few are obviously infectious, you would want to handle them last and have an isolation area set up at the clinic or place where the horses are being transported.”

Once the horses have been documented and tended to, then it’s time to document their living conditions and environment. “Demonstrate how that environment may have directly affected the animal,” she said, including taking photographs or directing the person who is. Any dead horses, carcasses, or skeletal remains on the property must also be catalogued as physical evidence.

Once all horses have been removed from the property, the veterinarian should perform a more thorough documentation of the living space. Note the dimensions of each enclosure or shelter as well as how many horses shared each space, said Eller. Take mid-range and close-up photos of “any receptacles, presence or lack of good and water, quality of food and water, shelter and fence construction and possible hazards, feces, and urine,” she added.

Phase 3: Nonanimal evidence

Veterinarians also play an important role identifying nonanimal evidence. “This could include items such as medications, supplements, surgical supplies, emasculators, and caustic substances,” said Eller. “Some items of evidence may be overlooked by law enforcement officers who are not familiar with the particular crime type.”

Phase 4: Document the condition of the scene upon exit

This final phase involves a thorough physical exam and detailed photos of each horse. “Photos are a fundamental component of a forensic examination,” said Eller. She suggests treating the horse like a cube and getting photos of all six sides, with close-ups of any findings, such as lesions, abscesses, or wounds, and placing a forensic ruler next to these findings for measurement purposes.

And above all, never delete any photos—even the blurry or unintentional ones. “They will be found, and you will be questioned,” said Eller.

The veterinarian’s role in an animal abuse case doesn’t end after the crime scene has been documented, evidence collected, and horses treated. He or she must provide a final report on the facts of the case, known as a forensic veterinary statement. This will help the judge and jury understand the evidence. When putting together a forensic veterinary statement, write for a lay audience, and remain impartial, said Eller. It is not the veterinarian’s job to determine guilt or innocence, but to present the medical facts of the case.

When Rescues Go Bad, Veterinarians Should Be Ready To Help

Here’s a good article by Natalie Voss from the Paulick Report, on the importance for veterinarians to recognize and act upon neglect in horse rescues. Veterinarians are in a position to observe occasions of animal abuse and have a moral obligation to report suspected cases.  That obligation has increased with the recognized link between abuse in animals and abuse in people and the recognition in some provinces (Quebec) of animal sentience. The rapid increase in the number of equine rescues and the number of horses under their control also means that increased vigilance and scrutiny must be made.

For Canadian veterinarians,  there is a Canada-specific resource produced by the CVMA that can be used for reference purposes.  Please click here to read the Microsoft Word document.

From the Paulick Report:

“As social media brings together more animal lovers and homeless horses than ever, authorities across the country are seeing an increase in the number of rescue situations gone bad. At the recent American Association of Equine Practitioners convention in Orlando, Fla., a panel of experts devoted an entire afternoon to helping veterinarians understand the legal and ethical implications involved in reporting cruelty cases and helping investigators document them.

There is no centralized authority keeping track of the numbers of horses reported neglected by owners each year, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals suggests the number is growing. ASPCA is often called in large-scale neglect cases of all species to provide volunteer manpower and veterinary expertise.

It’s also becoming more common than ever to receive reports of large-scale neglect from farms operating as non-profit horse rescues. Dr. Jennifer Williams, president and co-founder of Blue Bonnet Equine Humane Society, pointed out the number of rescues has grown with the number of unwanted horses. When she began working in horse rescue 18 years ago, she was one of very few in that role in the state of Texas.

“Now you can’t hardly walk down the road without stumbling into a rescue. They’re everywhere,” said Williams, who noted there are now more than 400 organizations listed with the Internal Revenue Service as being a “horse” or “equine” rescue/humane society.

It’s only logical that some of those organizations will be ill-equipped to handle the unending need for their services, the panel agreed.

This means veterinarians need to be aware of the laws governing animal cruelty and neglect in their state and county and have an idea of who to call before they need to report a case. Some vets hesitate to report cases because they assume if the owner is ordering medical care for an animal, they can’t be considered to be abusing the animal. Others may believe they have to know who is responsible for abuse or neglect before reporting it (they don’t), or feel uncomfortable reporting a case in which the animals belong to someone who’s not a client. It’s also important for veterinarians to know the language of their state’s animal welfare laws, and the difference in “cruelty” (an act of commission, like beating an animal) versus “neglect” (an act of omission, like withholding feed).
 

“Just because you or I may feel something constitutes abuse, doesn’t mean the law recognizes it as such,” said Dr. Rachel Touroo, director of veterinary forensics at the ASPCA. “Therefore, you need to familiarize yourself with these laws to form an opinion of what constitutes cruelty or neglect.”

In fact, the non-reporting of a potential abuse case can pose a legal problem for veterinarians; some 11 states require them to report suspicions of abuse. (Kentucky, Florida, and New York have no such requirement; California does.)

Touroo indicated neglect is seen more often in horses than outright abuse and can be attributed to a variety of factors. Some owners (or rescues) run out of funding, others don’t have the necessary education to understand how to feed or care for animals. Others could experience depression or other emotional issues related to caregiver stress. Still others, Touroo said, have physical or mental health issues limiting their capacity to provide care. Mental health issues often manifest in the form of hoarding both animals and objects. In Touroo’s experience, people involved in these cases have lost touch with reality, and insist their crowded, starving, or ill animals are happy and healthy, even if it’s obvious they are not.

“They often will remain vigilant with this defense, all the way through court, even if they’re found guilty,” said Touroo. “They will insist they were providing the best care for these animals and no one else could care for these animals like they do.”

Despite this odd defense, people with overcrowded farms can also be aware enough of the horse’s physical appearance to hide the worst-looking animals on the back of the property, so veterinarians are encouraged to keep their eyes open. People operating rescues with this issue are sometimes known to refuse visitors to the facility, seem to focus on acquiring more animals rather than adopting out from their herd, and may insist upon accepting donated horses at a remote location.

Once a case has been identified and reported, veterinarians were encouraged to volunteer their support to local law enforcement. Some areas have dedicated animal control officers who may have training in identifying symptoms of malnourishment or untreated disease, but others are completely unprepared.

If veterinarians are brought in to help with an investigation, ASPCA has a suggested protocol for getting neglected horses treated without disrupting the legal case. Vets should take photographs of each horse throughout the treatment process from all angles, and establish identification numbers and descriptions of animals early on. Horses with contagious diseases should be quarantined and those diseases reported to the state’s animal health department if required. Medical records belong to the veterinarian and cannot legally be released without a subpoena (or permission from the animal’s owner), but should be maintained extensively for use in prosecution. This includes notes on normal findings or on vital signs and even means veterinarians shouldn’t delete blurry or out-of-focus photos from their phones. Dr. Nicole Eller, field shelter veterinarian, noted this causes gaps in metadata which could provide a defense lawyer a line of questioning in court.

Law enforcement should be tipped to any unusual equipment on the property such as veterinary drugs or surgical supplies. Possession of these items could constitute additional charges and could help identify accomplices.

Vets should also not refrain from billing the appropriate party for their treatment of the animals, since this demonstrates to the court the financial impact of restoring animals to health (though they shouldn’t expect speedy payment, either).

Ultimately, veterinarians’ role is to provide clarity, and hopefully in turn, justice and safety for the animal.

“We are advocates, in these cases, for the truth,” said Eller. “We as vets are used to being advocate for the animal, and in a lot of cases it should probably be the same thing. You don’t need to describe guilt or innocence; you just need to describe your findings.”

University of Saskatchewan Develops Endoscopy Capsule (Camera Pill) For Horses

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Julia Montgomery, from the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, holds up an endoscopy capsule designed for humans but tested on the thoroughbred horse, Mama. The camera in a pill is able to take pictures for nine hours throughout the horse’s abdomen. | William DeKay

Endoscopy capsules are already available for human patients,  and aid in the diagnoses of inflammatory bowel and other conditions.  The capsule is the size and shape of a large pill and contains a tiny wireless camera.  After a patient swallows the capsule, it takes pictures of the inside of the gastrointestinal tract. 

The University of Saskatchewan has developed a prototype capsule for horses based on the capsule already in use for humans.  The capsule will be inserted via stomach tube and will contain lenses that send digital colour images attached to a receiver located in a belt wrapped around the horse’s rib cage.

Please read more here: