Over $7M in private gifts to bolster UF veterinary pathology program

Dr. Adam Stern, left, explains to veterinary students how to excavate a clandestine animal grave in a forest.
Dr. Adam Stern, left, explains to veterinary students how to excavate a clandestine animal grave in a forest.
Courtesy of Adam Stern

Many of the animals examined by Dr. Adam Stern, a professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in the department of comparative diagnostic and population medicine, have experienced an untimely death or unexpected tragedy.

They are often at the center of a criminal investigation and Stern’s forensic examinations aim to find answers about what happened.

Since 2018, the Veterinary Forensic Sciences Laboratory team has worked hundreds of animal abuse and neglect cases, seeking justice for all types of creatures. From farm animals and wildlife to cats, dogs, rabbits, and parrots, these animals’ untold stories often help law enforcement and other government agencies unravel larger, complex crimes.

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Now, thanks to more than $7 million from anonymous donors in 2023, the program is poised for its first major expansion, providing much-needed resources for animal forensics partners across the state of Florida, the nation, and the world.

“More than anything, these gifts allow us to grow,” said Stern, a board-certified veterinary pathologist with more than 15 years in the field. “We can now bring in two more faculty members, and another fellow, who will help with the casework.”

On any given day, Stern, along with a veterinary forensic pathology fellow and two lab technicians, can be found carefully examining animals to understand what caused their death, seeking answers to seemingly mystifying circumstances. Cases come to UF from law enforcement, animal services/control, state attorney offices, humane societies, veterinarians, and the public. The lab also conducts toxicology, imaging studies, DNA analysis, and crime scene response when needed. And that need is growing.

“Our veterinary forensics program is a ray of hope to those who wish for and pursue justice for abused and neglected animals,” said the college’s dean, Dr. Dana Zimmel. “However, facilitating and sustaining the growth needed to do the most good requires a significant investment of resources. We are beyond grateful to those who have donated to support this program and look forward to watching it continue to thrive.”

From 2022 to 2023, Stern’s lab saw a 136% increase in casework, largely from word-of-mouth or trainings he and his team host. The demands loom large. Additional lab personnel will allow Stern to expand trainings with outside agencies, empowering those teams to work animal abuse and neglect cases through a forensic science lens.

The gifts will also buy equipment to help the team expedite casework. For example, lab processes such as urine analysis will now use artificial intelligence to compare samples within a large dataset and look for abnormalities via image comparisons, saving lab technicians hours of time.

Besides the new team members, the gifts will create several animal advocacy funds, including the Animal Advocacy Case Support Fund and the Animal Advocacy Extension and Outreach Fund. Those funds will help bridge the lab’s work with government agencies, particularly for smaller ones with fewer resources, ensuring they have better access to investigative services, expert testimony, and ancillary testing.

Those who work with Stern regularly deeply value his expertise and welcome the additional resources.

“The importance of medical evidence in an animal cruelty prosecution cannot be overstated because the animal victims cannot testify and explain the event or describe their pain and suffering,” said Jamie A. McManus, deputy chief assistant state attorney in Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties.

Stern is skilled at explaining complex medical concepts so jurors can understand them, McManus said.

UF is the only academic institution in the country whose veterinary medical college features a comprehensive veterinary forensic pathology program. As such, it’s a key resource for law enforcement agencies investigating animal abuse. The veterinary team also collaborates with university partners through the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, through forensic entomology and DNA analyses.

Jay Scarborough, a detective in the agriculture unit at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, said he’s been aided by Stern’s team many times.

“His willingness to work on a case no matter the level of difficulty makes him and his staff the best in the business,” Scarborough said.

Stern plans to continue to expand his team’s work beyond Florida. The Animal Advocacy Extension and Outreach Fund will support the college’s training and education for animal services, law enforcement, attorneys, veterinarians, and the public. Stern will begin by hosting weekend workshops and expand to webinars and other remote learning.

In the meantime, another new fund will now allow Stern to offer an annual conference dedicated to animal forensic sciences and animal advocacy, bringing together experts in law and animal advocacy who hear directly from the college’s faculty, staff, and students. Sessions expand on topics such as forensic photography, how to approach cases of suspected poisoning, and examining illegal wildlife trade.

Adam Leath, director of Seminole County Animal Services and a courtesy faculty member in the college, said his team has come to rely on Stern’s lab for help in its animal crimes and cruelty cases.

“I know that we would not have secured convictions in several high-profile cases had it not been for their expertise,” he said.

The gift will also create a fund to support an animal law adjunct professor in the college who will teach animal advocacy trainings and consult on cases with prosecutors, law enforcement, and animal services.

While Stern’s work revolves around seeking justice for victims of animal abuse, the science sometimes helps exonerate those wrongly accused. Both outcomes bring Stern satisfaction, knowing that his team’s scientific work affected a case.

Ultimately, a gift of this magnitude is a major step toward Stern’s long-term plan: Establishing the College of Veterinary Medicine as the state’s premier resource for the veterinary forensic sciences and helping as many victims as possible, which can include humans. He notes the distinct connection between animal and human health.

“With animal cruelty in general, there is a huge link between animal abuse, child abuse, elder abuse, and domestic violence,” he said. “The work that we do, it’s not just for the animal. Sometimes there are human victims, and we identify them through the animal case first, and then they find those (human victims), or vice versa.”

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