The Veterinarian's Role in Equine Abuse Investigations

Veterinarians must know how to properly document findings and avoid destroying evidence while still putting the horse’s welfare first.

Photo: Courtesy of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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.

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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