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Police in U.S. turning to animal DNA to solve crime

Marylin Christian vowed to seek justice after her beloved cat Cody was found dead under suspicious circumstances.

But when Christian suggested that animal control officers collect saliva from a neighbor's dog, Lucky, to see if it could be genetically linked to hair found in Cody's mouth and claws, she was met with bewilderment.

"They kind of acted like, 'Well, you've been watching a little too much 'CSI,"' Christian recalled with a laugh, referring to the U.S. TV show.

Christian eventually paid $500 (EUR370) for the evidence to be tested at the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of California at Davis, which has the largest database of domesticated-animal DNA in the country.

The result? A one in 67 million chance the hair belonged to any animal other than Lucky.

Now, more and more law enforcement officials have come to share her interest in applying forensic methods in investigating serious crimes such as murder or rape in which an animal may yield important clues.

"There's some real serious cases where animal DNA played a role in helping solve the case," said Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, a DNA expert who has asked investigators to collect DNA samples from murder suspects' pets at crime scenes. "I believe that it will be used more and more."

The lab at the University of California handles between 150 and 200 cases a year from all over the world. Besides dealing with pet-on-pet attacks, animal attacks on humans and human attacks on animals, the lab's scientists also process evidence from cases of human crimes against each other.

In one case, the lab used DNA testing to match dog excrement found on the bottom of a murder suspect's shoe to excrement found near the crime scene - a piece of evidence that helped secure the man's conviction.

In another case, a sexual assault victim couldn't pick her attacker out of a lineup - but she remembered her dog had urinated on the man's pickup truck. The dog's DNA matched DNA traces found on the truck's tire and the suspect pleaded guilty.

Melinda Merck, a forensic veterinarian with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, relies on the same techniques as standard crime scene investigators - ballistics, toxicology, blood spatter analysis - to help solve animal cruelty cases across the country.

"It's rapidly growing," she said of her specialty. "There is a tremendous interest from the veterinarians and there's a tremendous interest from law enforcement."

Last year, Merck testified in the Atlanta trial of two teenage brothers who tortured a puppy and left it in an oven to die. Merck was able to prove the puppy was alive when it was tortured and reconstructed the animal's grim final moments for a jury. The brothers were sentenced to a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Even forensic entomologists - who use insects such as maggots to help estimate a victim's time of death - have crossed over into the world of animal-related crimes.

Forensic entomologist Jason Byrd often is called on to help investigators with wildlife crimes and poaching cases. If a bald eagle is shot at a game reserve, Byrd can examine the maggots on the bird's carcass to help determine its time of death. Investigators then can access the records at the reserve to narrow down who was in the area at the time of the shooting.

"They're not scared to spend money now to figure out who's been poaching animals," Byrd said. "Now they do true investigation techniques - they throw forensic science at the problem."

Despite the fact that Christian got DNA results, animal control officers refused to declare Lucky a dangerous dog. Lucky and his owners have since moved away.

And even though her CSI-style pursuit of justice was expensive and frustrating, the stay-at-home mother of two has no regrets.

"I felt like I needed to do it for my family," she said. "The two-legged and the four-legged."

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