AWSELVA shines spotlight on DNA analysis to bring justice for animals

AWSELVA shines spotlight on DNA analysis
to bring justice for animals

Dr Nick Dawnay University of Liverpool


Our first post-Covid, in-person conference took place in March where the animal forensics element of the organisation was explored to underline the relevance of the forensics discipline to vets, vet students, and people who live and work with animals. The event, organised and chaired by vet and forensic scientist, AWSELVA’S Gosia Jones, introduced talks by forensics experts to demonstrate how the fields of animal science, husbandry, forensics, and law are intrinsically linked to show how the science of forensics underpins animal welfare standards.

The conference aimed to set out a timeline of the forensics process, involving other animal-related agencies, from the stages of initial assessment and investigation to detailed evidential analysis and finally on to prosecution.

Simon Newbery, a vet in general practice, who was an early collaborator with crime professionals in a forensics context, examined the origins of veterinary forensics, explaining the career path options, how forensic science dovetails with veterinary science, how forensic work can fit in around general GP vet practice, the nature of forensic investigations from a veterinary perspective, and the types of cases a vet might be called upon to work on, and dispelled a few myths created by TV crime dramas.


Margaret Doyle, one of AWSELVA’S committee members with forensics expertise, attending from Calgary, presented a talk that was both difficult to listen to, but also awe-inspiring in the sense that there are professionals willing to work on the most troubling of cases to preserve animal safety and prosecute the worst offenders. Presenting real case studies of animal abuse in Canada, Margaret outlined the expert investigation methods that have been used to bring criminals to justice. In particular the use of DNA analysis in crime scenes, describing the collection methods used.

Dr Margaret Doyle (left) Dr Simon Newbery and event organiser and chair, Dr Gosia Jones (right)

Margaret reviewed how forensics experts can work alongside law enforcement officials, and demonstrated how a veterinary level of knowledge of anatomy and injury can reveal cover-ups from criminals and expose their crimes. She covered the motivations and circumstances for animal cruelty in domestic settings and the links between challenging social and domestic circumstances and the abuse of animals.

Nicholas Dawnay, from the University of Liverpool offered the perspective of forensic investigation through laboratory work, revealing how recent developments in DNA testing can be applied in the field to provide deeper level insights into crime investigations. Canine attacks remain a persistent problem requiring increasingly sophisticated methods of investigation. Nicolas went on to outline Liverpool’s Canine DNA Recovery Project that aims to improve methods for recovering canine DNA after an attack, with particular relevance to wildlife and livestock attacks.


Richard Ellis from APHA described how livestock crimes are investigated in the field. Giving insights into how government vets work collaboratively with farmers, agricultural agencies, and law enforcement to investigate crime. Including crime with an economic driver such as false reporting of TB reactors, describing how APHA are involved from the initial investigation right through to the prosecution stage, involving giving evidence in an effective manner that meets the threshold required by the courts, explaining how a team effort is needed to gather evidence and present it effectively to bring about successful prosecutions.

It was timely to highlight animal forensics as an underserved area of animal science, and the speakers provided fascinating insights into the breadth of roles forensic scientists play in supporting animal welfare.

A notable outcome of the event was bringing people together from different specialisms. There was plenty of knowledge-sharing and insights between delegates, and useful connections made. The great benefit of AWSELVA has always been its opportunities for networking and bringing people together across related but separate disciplines. This conference was a great example of the relevance of AWSELVA’s approach across animal welfare science, ethics, law, and forensics. Attendees went away with new connections, enhanced knowledge, and new ways of thinking about their work.