The Veterinary Medicine Interview: Dr. Melinda D. Merck


This high-profile forensic veterinarian investigates animal cruelty cases, which no one wants to see. But she says she finds the work satisfying because "I am giving the animal a voice."

Melinda D. Merck, DVM, is the senior director of veterinary forensics for the ASPCA and a consultant for the Fulton County District Attorney's Office in Atlanta. In addition to conducting veterinary forensic examinations in Georgia, she helps train veterinary and law enforcement professionals on using veterinary medicine in investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty cases. She is the author of Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations and the coauthor of Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty: A Guide for Veterinarians and Law Enforcement.

What is the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?

The developing interest in veterinary forensics. It requires the veterinary community to accept that we have a responsibility to speak for the animals when they are possible victims of abuse.

Dr. Merck in front of the ASPCA's new Mobile Animal CSI Unit, which will allow her to investigate crime scenes and provide urgent care, including surgery, on site.

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

My equine rotation resident stressed that you must always anticipate everything that could happen and plan accordingly. This way of thinking has served to make me a better doctor and to handle emergencies and crises much more easily.

What would you advise a new graduate?

Remember what you were taught in veterinary school! If you do a thorough exam and use deductive reasoning, you can invariably figure out your case. Common sense is a must.

What would you have liked to do if you hadn't become a veterinarian?

A prosecutor!

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

I am an all-animal person. I haven't met an animal yet that I did not like. My lifestyle supports both cats and dogs.

What part of your work do you enjoy most?

The work I do on animal cruelty cases. It is challenging to figure out these puzzles; each case is different. And working with the investigators and prosecutors is always interesting. The casework is satisfying because I am giving the animal a voice.

How did you help with the Michael Vick case and how has this case changed the arena of animal cruelty?

I assisted with the excavation of the remains from the graves on the property and performed the examination of the remains. I think the high-profile nature of this case has had a positive impact on animal welfare and cruelty investigations. It has raised the public's awareness of not only dog fighting but all types of cruelty. It also has had an impact on law enforcement in demonstrating the link between animal cruelty and other types of crimes.

What should veterinarians do if they suspect animal abuse?

If a veterinarian suspects animal abuse, he or she should report it to the proper authorities. It is imperative that the veterinarian know ahead of time who to report to and have a protocol within the practice of how to handle these cases. The worst thing we could do is fail to report and allow possible abuse to continue.

What can you tell us about the ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Institute?

The Anti-Cruelty Institute is scheduled to open in New York City in 2010. The institute will be dedicated exclusively to victims of animal cruelty in the New York area. In addition, it will have a research center, forensics lab, and education facility. This will bring together the world's biggest and brightest minds to advance veterinary forensics, animal cruelty investigations, and prosecutions.

What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?

Complacency. Advances in animal medicine and welfare come from people who do not accept the norm and push to discover new solutions. If everyone did this, we could see awesome changes for the betterment of our profession.

What changes in veterinary medicine do you hope will occur in the next 100 years?

Mandatory reporting of suspected animal cruelty cases by all states, which is what is required of our human medicine counterparts. We should see this in the next few years, not 100. In 100 years, we will see more specialized fields of veterinary medicine, including forensics.

What are the greatest achievements of your career so far?

Starting a feline practice that tried to serve the needs of all owned and unwanted cats, and pioneering the field of veterinary forensics to enable others to help victims of abuse.

What makes a good veterinarian?

I think all veterinarians should strive to be great veterinarians. A great veterinarian is thorough, avoids tunnel vision, and strives for perfection. Because we hold animals' lives in our hands, it is imperative that we strive to practice perfect medicine; mistakes can be fatal.

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