GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- When federal investigators working the Michael Vick dogfighting case needed someone to dig up and analyze the remains of eight pit bulls buried on the football star's Virginia property, they summoned Melinda Merck.
The nation's top forensic veterinarian, Merck was one of the few specialists trained in processing crime scenes involving animals.
Her job at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals involves helping prosecutors build court cases, and she saw there weren't nearly enough vets and other professionals with those skills.
The 46-year-old Merck is trying to change that, co-founding a first-of-its-kind veterinary forensic science training program at the University of Florida.
She and scientists from the university's renowned human forensics lab are sharing their expertise with animal-cruelty investigators, police and veterinarians who come from around the world.
Demand for forensic veterinarians has been growing as many states have toughened their animal cruelty laws. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have increasingly recognized that those who abuse animals are likely to eventually commit crimes against people.
Hands-on seminars teach participants crime-scene processing and the preservation of evidence in cases of animal abuse and neglect, such as those involving puppy mills, dogfighting and animal hoarding.
Elements include exhuming remains, analyzing hair, fibers and blood splatter, and even how insect life cycles and plant growth can yield clues about an animal's death.
"With animal cruelty, there are usually no witnesses -- or reluctant witnesses -- and certainly the victims can't testify, even if they're alive," Merck said. "So they're always evidence-based cases."
A partnership between the ASPCA and the university's William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, the program has already trained around 200 people, mostly through two- and three-day sessions.
A certification program in the subject for the university students is in the works.