University of Florida veterinary students learn to detect, document animal cruelty

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The United States is ranked 31st in the world for the toughest animal cruelty laws, yet 10 million animals die from abuse every year in this country.

There are many examples: An abused dog left abandoned, neglected and nearly blind; a kitten found with its tail chopped off; and the heartbreaking scenes of unspeakable crimes against innocent animals unfold daily across the country.

While dogs and cats make up the majority of the victims, even wild animals are not immune to human brutality.

“We investigate crimes against animals where there’s cruelty where the person is harming the animal physically, we investigate cases of neglect where the animal is not getting proper veterinary care or is not fed food and they starve to death, and then we’re also dealing with animal fighting where we have dog fighting and bird fighting where we’re fighting two roosters against each other,” said. Dr. Adam Stern, a professor of forensic pathology with the Department of Comparative, Diagnostic, and Population Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Now a group UF veterinary students are learning how to recognize and document animal abuse through a first-of-its-kind program, designed by Stern.

“If they’re called upon by law enforcement, they’re learning how to actually go to a crime scene to help law enforcement identify some of the paraphernalia that might be associated with a crime,” he said.

For their final project, the students are investigating a simulated cock fighting ring.

“We’ve been using 360-degree cameras and digital cameras to really highlight and capture what they see here,” Stern said.

Third-year veterinary student Ashlyn Frahn said she didn’t know what to expect when she signed up for the class.

“The things we’ve learned in this course -- the skills, the techniques, how it applies to the real world -- is not something we’ve learned in any of our classes,” she said.

Frahn said the training will undoubtedly make a difference in how she practices veterinary medicine.

“You don’t have a patient that can tell you what’s wrong and how they feel and what hurts, and you have to figure it out on your own, and that way you’re a little pet detective but also a doctor for animals, which is really cool,” Frahn said.

In Florida, the penalty for animal abuse can include up to one year of jail and a maximum fine of $5,000.

Aggravated animal cruelty can result in up to five years of prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.

About the Authors:

Jacey Birch anchors Local 10 News Mornings each weekday from 4:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. She is also proud to be the animal advocate for Local 10's investigative team.

Veteran journalist Kathleen Corso is the special projects producer for Local 10 News.