Adam Stern, DVM, CMI-IV, CFC, DACVP, Associate Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of Florida Veterinary School, is sometimes known as the “CSI Vet” for his ability to solve animal crimes.
If that makes you think of the actresses Tamara Tunie and Leslie Hendrix of the Law and Order Special Victims Unit series — their characters were medical examiners who used investigatory skills to determine the cause, time and manner of death of the victim — you’re on the right track, except instead of human Jane and John Does, the victims in Dr. Stern’s cases are animals.
“I have seen dogs who have been placed in ovens and microwaves, and who have been set on fire,” says Dr. Stern. “These are some of the most horrific types of cases one can see. In some of these cases, we determined the animals were alive at the time of the incidents.”
Dr. Stern’s career has involved helping to solve more than 500 animal crimes. His first case was a starvation case. “It was a dog who was not provided food for a prolonged period of time and ultimately died,” he recalls.
Forensic Pathology as a Career Choice: It’s Not for Everyone
Dr. Stern knows the work is not for everyone. “I often get asked, ‘How do you cope with the things you see?’ I address this in two ways. First, it is my job to look at these cases, describe and interpret what I see, and provide my expert opinion for the case. Second, I leave work at work. I free my mind of these cases by going fishing, spending time with my family, and other fun non-work-related things.”
Dr. Stern came to UF’s Veterinary School in August 2018, after spending eight years (2010-18) as an Assistant Director and Clinical Associate Professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois. “Being a forensic pathologist in the veterinary world is quite different as there are only 3 veterinary pathologists that I know of in North America that solely practice forensic pathology,” says Dr. Stern. “Two work at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, and myself at University of Florida.
“I ended up as a veterinarian because my first plan just did not work out at the time,” he says. “I was interested in counterterrorism, pre 9-11. At the time, that career option was not a feasible option where I was studying, so I moved to biology and ultimately veterinary medicine. I went on to become a pathologist, having done my anatomic pathology training at Oklahoma State University. There I saw a handful of legal cases. It was through observing and/or participating in these cases that I figured out that this was the type of pathology I was most interested in.”
The Nature of Animal Crime Investigation
At the University of Illinois, Dr. Stern was involved in numerous forensic investigations, performing autopsies on animals suspected to have been abused or neglected. The forensic autopsy — “I prefer to use the term autopsy rather than necropsy,” he notes — is performed in order to answer questions about the death of an animal. Typically these deaths are non-natural, have suspicious circumstances (out of place and time), or there is evidence to suggest foul play. Information that can be obtained includes cause of death, time of death, collection of trace evidence, and in some instances, identification of the animal (species and/or individual).
“The findings from a forensic autopsy can help law enforcement agencies during their investigation,” says Dr. Stern. The animal crimes that a forensic pathologist investigates can involve gunshot wounds, blunt-force trauma, strangulation and neglect.
“Drowning cases are a major challenge,” says Dr. Stern, “because there is no way to definitively diagnose drowning in veterinary medicine. Many times, it is a diagnosis of exclusion.”
Conducting Animal Crime Investigations
“A typical case really starts with a review of the history,” Dr. Stern explains. “Information obtained from on-scene investigators can shed a lot of light on what I may encounter during my examinations. Scene information may provide clues as to a possible weapon(s) that might have been used, potential toxins/poisons, availability of food, etc. From there, we might start with postmortem imaging (radiographs, CT scans). Both of these will help with identifying abnormalities, such as musculoskeletal trauma and identification of projectiles. During the entire process, I document my findings — both normal and abnormal, forensically significant and forensically insignificant — and write a report with my findings. Photodocumentation is important as well and will be performed for all forensic cases.”
As for identifying the suspect, Dr. Stern says that in identifying the animal, “we always scan for a microchip. I have identified many animals based on this and investigators have tracked down suspects using this basic information.”
Keeping an Open Mind
A fundamental precept that Dr. Stern brings to his work is to keep an open mind. “As a veterinary forensic pathologist, I strive to be a non-biased party by documenting what I see and ultimately making an interpretation of my findings,” he notes. “I am using my medical knowledge to make case determinations, and if my findings are different than the working case theory, I will report that just as I would if my findings support the case theory.”
Dr. Stern also works with a number of other experts, including DNA experts, toxicologists, entomologists, and radiologists. “Forensic pathology is just one part of the puzzle,” he says.
And just like Tunie’s and Hendrix’s characters in Law & Order SUV, Dr. Stern does sometimes testify in court. “Not all cases go to trial,” he says. “Suspects may plead guilty, plea bargain, and in some cases might not prosecuted for various reasons.”
Dr. Stern has started a forensic pathology service at UF, and he’s teaching veterinary students about veterinary forensics and assisting with training of 6 anatomic pathology residents at UF. “I am also currently working on postmortem interval determination using non-traditional techniques,” he says, “as well as conducting research on food forensics and imaging of gunshot victims.”
For More Information
Dr. Stern’s textbook, Veterinary Forensics: Investigation, Evidence Collection, and Expert Testimony, was published in March 2018.
In 2013, Dr. Stern co-authored “The Veterinarian as Medical Examiner” in Today’s Veterinary Practice.
Read additional articles related to this subject in the Ethics/Forensics/Welfare section of Today’s Veterinary Practice website.
Read about UF’s forensic pathology services.