Fighting animal cruelty

animal cruelty

Photography: Eamon Gallagher

Australia’s only accredited forensic veterinarian, Dr Rebecca Belousoff, has her work cut out for her investigating some of the worst cases of animal cruelty—her evidence helping to convict animal abusers. By Petra Starke

Animal cruelty cases have always been difficult to diagnose and prosecute for one simple reason—the victims can’t talk. Now, thanks to the emerging field of veterinary forensics, specialist vets are giving voices to the voiceless, and helping combat the scourge of animal abuse.

As Australia’s only accredited forensic veterinarian, Dr Rebecca Belousoff is one such specialist, instrumental in prosecuting cases of animal cruelty uncovered by inspectors at RSPCA Victoria, where she works. Just like the medical forensics experts on popular television shows like CSI and Bones, Dr Belousoff uses a range of specialised scientific skills to determine if an animal has been abused, neglected or mistreated—something regular vets are typically untrained in.

What she uncovers in her examinations can help lead to a successful prosecution in court, where she is regularly called upon to appear as an expert witness.

“Veterinary forensics is sort of looking at an animal patient and trying to ascertain what has occurred to that animal,” Dr Belousoff explains. “If it’s an abuse case, I work out what has led to the problem in the animal. If it’s an emaciation problem, I work through that. And obviously I go and look at crime scenes as well.”

During Dr Belousoff’s two years as RSPCA Victoria’s inspectorate veterinarian, those crime scenes have included everything from suburban houses overflowing with rubbish and crawling with sick animals, to puppy farms crowded with hundreds of dogs living in filth and squalor.

For someone who has always loved and cherished animals, such scenes can be difficult to process.

Born in country Victoria, Dr Belousoff had an early introduction to caring for animals through her grandparents’ farm in Cudgewa, about five hours north-east of Melbourne. “It was just sort of a home farm with cattle and chickens,” she says.

“I really loved all the cattle and the sheep; our neighbours had lambs, and so I had a lot of exposure to animals at a young age. We always had cats and dogs at home. I had a very great love of animals pretty much from the beginning.”

With doctors in the family, and “a real passion for helping people and animals”, she always knew she wanted to “go down the medical path or the vet path”, she says. In the end animals won, and after completing her Bachelor of Veterinary Science at the University of Melbourne, she began working as a vet for the Cat Protection Society, before joining the RSPCA in 2007.

It was there that she began to see more and more cases of suspected animal abuse being brought in by the inspectors—emaciated dogs, cats with unexplained multiple fractures—and quickly developed a passion for the work, joining in on bigger and more complex criminal investigations.

“The inspectors need proof without a doubt to prosecute cases of animal cruelty, so I wanted to keep developing my skills so I could get that evidence and that proof.”

Eventually she decided to make the leap into veterinary forensics, signing up for the University of Florida’s online graduate certificate course—one of the only officially accredited courses in the world. She is now preparing to undertake the university’s new online master’s degree in the subject.

animal cruelty“Because I needed to collect evidence and write reports, it really spurred me on to do extra research for the cases I was seeing. The inspectors need proof without a doubt to prosecute cases of animal cruelty, so I wanted to keep developing my skills so I could get that evidence and that proof,” she says.

Since then she has helped the RSPCA investigate numerous animal cruelty cases, all of them horrific in their own way. “I’ve had dogs that have been beaten, hung, stabbed, drowned, shot, strangled,” she says.

“The majority of cases I’ve seen have been emaciated animals. Animals that are really emaciated, they’re essentially walking skeletons. They need to be put on IV fluids to support them. Those really, really skinny dogs stick in my mind.

“You look at them and think ‘I don’t think anything could possibly look any skinnier than this animal that’s just come in’. And amazingly there’s always cases that come in that surprise you even more.”

Like Skittles, the collie who was found hog-tied in a bag on the side of the road, shot in the head, and left for dead. “Some passers-by found him in there, and he was brought in to the RSPCA in really poor condition,” she says.

“He was hog-tied pretty tightly, so he had nasty wounds on his legs. He had to have an eye removed and he was rendered deaf from the impact of the shotgun.”

Thanks in part to Dr Belousoff’s forensics work, the dog’s attacker was identified, convicted, fined $7500 and banned from owning animals for 10 years. Skittles, meanwhile, was eventually re-homed after months of careful rehabilitation. “It was a fantastic outcome for that dog,” she says.

Other forensics work Dr Belousoff has undertaken for the RSPCA includes an investigation into greyhound live baiting, and investigations of illegal puppy farms.

One of her most significant cases came in 2013, just after she began studying for her forensics certificate, where inspectors discovered more than 200 abused and neglected dogs and puppies at a puppy farm in Pyramid Hill, near Bendigo.

Covered in matted fur and dangerously underweight, many of the dogs had a litany of medical problems, from diseases to untreated wounds. “That definitely stands out as a turning point for me and for the organisation as well,” she says. “We took many, many dogs—probably at least one hundred and something dogs—off this property at different stages, and the animals were very heavily matted, had a lot of behavioural issues, very terrified and frightened.

“The majority of cases I’ve seen have been emaciated animals. Animals that are really emaciated, they’re essentially walking skeletons. They need to be put on IV fluids to support them. Those really, really skinny dogs stick in my mind.”

“All of them had medical problems like dental disease and infections and really complicated problems. We were able to re-home a great majority of those animals which was fantastic, and the puppy farmer is no longer operating, so that’s the greatest achievement.”

But for every case of deliberate animal abuse she sees, there are many more that are just the sad results of inattention, ignorance, or mental illness. Now Dr Belousoff has become a big advocate for spreading the word about veterinary forensics, and for educating other vets in how to spot the less obvious signs of animal abuse.

“Even in private practice, a lot of vets will be seeing cases of animal cruelty and they might not be aware,” she says.

animal cruelty“Probably the biggest thing that we find are animals that keep presenting with injuries. So if you have an animal and you X-ray it and find it has multiple fractures, or fractures at different stages of healing, that’s a really big red flag that this animal has been physically abused if not once, then multiple times.

“Regular, repeat visits to the one clinic with difficult-to-explain circumstances of how an animal became injured, that’s certainly something to take into consideration. I think as vets we’re not really taught about it, so I just want to open vets’ eyes to the fact that these are things you might be seeing.”

For her though, veterinary forensics is about more than just helping the animals that come into her care—it’s an essential social service. As she points out, spotting and treating animal abuse not only helps the animal, but can often help the people around it, too. “As vets, we’ve got an important role for the community as well, because the people that are abusing animals can often be abusing other people in the household as well.

“So, I’m passionate about informing people there’s a really strong link between people who abuse animals and then do other acts of interpersonal violence. The chances are that in any normal private practice situation, you might be seeing some cases of animal abuse that you could be a part of helping to deal with.”

While it’s something of an honour being the only one in Australia, ultimately Dr Belousoff would like to see the practice of veterinary forensics become more widespread. Apart from the University of Florida’s online course, which now includes a master’s degree—something she is planning to undertake herself—University of Sydney also offers a short course in veterinary forensics through its Centre for Veterinary Education Continuing Education program.

“For vets that are interested, they probably need to work in a welfare society or as a vet that’s linked to an RSPCA where inspectors will be bringing in cases,” Dr Belousoff says. “Being aware of the possibility of animal abuse I think is very relevant to private practitioners that might be seeing some weird cases that they just can’t really pinpoint.”

Despite having to deal with some horrific, heart-rending cases, it’s something she thinks most vets would be equipped to handle. “I don’t know if I’m any different from the other vets; we’re all made of pretty tough stuff,” she says.

“We see some pretty horrible things but when these cases come in, you kind of just go into work mode, and you become very focused on ‘this is my job, I need to be objective and get as much information from this animal as I can—the best I can’.”

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