When a crime is committed against an animal, Colorado's "Pet CSI" steps up, and they are seeing more and more cases of animal cruelty.
When Travis and Tesla Dougherty, of Firestone, suspected their beloved family dogs had been poisoned in their own back yard, a local animal hospital couldn't give them an answer.
"They were our babies. They were everything to us," said Tesla Dougherty.
So, they took the case to Colorado's only veterinary diagnostic lab. Think of it as "Pet CSI."
Colorado State University pathologist Gary Mason, the head of necropsy (autopsies for animals) at CSU's Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, has seen it all.
"Gunshots, stabbings, intentional poisoning, neglect and animal abandonment," said Mason. "It's work. It's work that needs to be done well."
A sign over his necropsy lab reads "The Halls of Truth." It's the first place animals are examined to find out what really happened.
Behind the scenes in the high-tech world, investigating a potential crime against an animal involves being part detective, part scientist.
"We're board-certified pathologists, and we're trained to look at these things," said Dr. Barb Powers, director of the CSU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.
She said that in recent years they have seen a significant increase in animal cruelty investigations.
They've investigated more than 30 cases in the last year.
She pointed to a 2007 law requiring veterinarians to report suspicions of abuse.
"As you see it on the news, I think it's becoming more and more obvious to people that they are being held accountable," said Powers.
Inside the lab, specialists in viruses, parasites and poison examine results together, and under the microscope, not all cases are what they first seem.
In August, Boulder police used the CSU Lab to examine whether a woman killed a cat by blowing heroin smoke in its face.
Police said the necropsy was inconclusive, but found the cat had no trace of heroin and several underlying medical conditions. Animal cruelty charges were dropped.
Veterinarians at the lab can't discuss specific cases because of privacy laws, but they say what they do protects more than animals.
"There's been a well-established link between cruelty to animals progressing to cruelty to people," said Mason. "I hope we provide a larger social service by preventing perhaps violent crime against other people by making sure an intervention occurs to someone that's abused animals."
The Doughertys say CSU vets found what other vets couldn't: poisoned meat caught in the dogs' throats.
"Whatever was used killed them so fast that the meat never even got to their stomach. It was still in their esophagus," said Travis Dougherty.
Police are now investigating, and the Doughertys said they're grateful that when there's a crime against an animal, someone is ready to act as the voice of the voiceless and crack the case.
The lab also tests for and helps diagnose infection disease in animals, such as mad cow, bird flu or foot and mouth disease.
In May, pathologists at the lab helped identify the first case of equine herpes, and state officials restricted movement to stop the spread and prevent a full-blown outbreak.
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