Skip to content Skip to navigation

A photo worth a thousand witnesses

Evidentiary photography can make or break an animal cruelty case

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2015

Rescue team members work together to photograph dogs with their evidence markers during a dogfighting raid in Gary, Ind.The extent of any emaciation is often best captured from above. In addition to any close detail photos, capture the top, bottom, front and sides of each animal. You might need someone to help hold and position each animal, but be careful that they don’t obscure injuries or signs of neglect.An HSUS photographer captures facial details in a mobile crime lab in Jacksonville, Fla.An HSUS photographer captures the underside of a dog rescued during a raid of a suspected dogfighting operation in Kalamazoo, Mich.Rescued from dire conditions in Preston, Miss., Rosa shares a dog kiss with Adam Parascandola.

Snapping a photo seems easy—whether you’re from the school of “point and shoot” or “aim the phone and tap.”

But animal cruelty crime scenes aren’t your family cruise to the Bahamas. They’re often the result of months of collaboration between law enforcement and animal agencies. They might be filled with law officers, rescue personnel and traumatized animals. They might happen in low light or cramped spaces. They’re chaotic. Emotional. Intense.

The goal of these photos is far different from that of those flattering Instagram selfies—in cruelty cases, #nofilter isn’t a hashtag, it’s a rule. If you’re tasked with documenting a crime scene, your photos could ensure seized dogs aren’t returned to the dogfighting pit—or could undercut the case entirely. In the school of evidentiary photography, it’s vital to get it right.

In cruelty cases, “a very common defense tactic is to ‘put the investigation on trial,’” notes Scott Heiser, criminal justice program director at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an organization that provides free legal assistance to prosecutors handling cruelty cases. Compounding the difficulty, “you have, in effect, two crime scenes,” says Heiser: the physical location and the animal, both of which need equal photographic attention.

Chris Schindler, senior manager of animal fighting investigations for The HSUS, recalls a case in which lack of photos of a dogfighting pit—a physically and objectively large piece of evidence—allowed an alleged dogfighter to go virtually scot-free.

And Adam Parascandola, a veteran HSUS animal cruelty investigator who now works for Humane Society International, remembers a judge who was reluctant to issue an arrest warrant—until he saw persuasive photos of the affected animal, a dog whose tail had been tied with a rubber band for three months.

So take as many relevant, clear photos as you can—and, assuming you’re working with a digital camera, delete nothing, says Schindler. Your camera’s memory card metadata “describes” the deletion, and during discovery, it can potentially appear that you’ve removed exculpatory evidence (that is, evidence that could help the defendant).

“You can argue all day long that they were bad pictures, that they were blurry, it doesn’t matter. You can get your whole case thrown out just for deleting one photo,” says Schindler. The ramifications of evidentiary photography—getting it wrong and getting it right—are a slippery slope.

Context, Context, Context

Melinda Merck, owner of Veterinary Forensics Consulting LLC and author of the second edition of Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations, describes five methods for documenting a crime scene: sketching/mapping, photography/ videography, measuring, note taking and collection of evidence. Of these, “photography is the most important,” she says.

The advent of the digital camera has been a great development in this work, providing the ability to review and retake (but again, not delete) poor photos on the spot. If your first shot fails to accurately or adequately depict conditions—bad lighting, for example, can throw a shadow or glare on the very evidence you’re trying to document—you can take another picture then and there.

When it comes to the camera , Parascandola says “simpler is better” for those who might not be camera-savvy. Look for a camera with a macro setting (it will have a button with a flower symbol, indicating the camera can capture detailed close-ups).

And don’t let that old exculpatory evidence argument resurface. Avoid seeming “sketchy,” says Schindler—set the camera’s date and time accurately and wipe clean and reformat your memory card before taking any photos. Accumulated memory card metadata can cast doubt on the best-intentioned crime scene photographer; reformatting your memory card “just eliminates that argument altogether,” he says.

Start with a “walk-through” of the crime scene, says Parascandola, before anything is touched. It’s important to capture the living conditions of each particular animal—whether they’re chained or in a cage, or whether they have food or water. Take panoramic photos of the scene, “including a picture of the address,” says Merck, to provide context for all evidence. Then systematically take medium- and close-view photos.

You’ll want to remember the word “systematic”: methodical documentation is key. Any animal or object removed from the crime scene will be assigned a critically important string of letters or numbers called an “evidence ID.” The first photo of anything considered evidence—whether it’s an animal or an object—should include an evidence marker (typically a small whiteboard or piece of cardboard held near the subject) with a clearly visible case number, the name of the lead agency, the date and the evidence ID within the frame of the shot. If you find you need to go back to an animal or object, the corresponding evidence marker should reappear before you take any additional photos.

Sometimes, more clarification and context is necessary. For dog chains, blood spatters, wounds and lacerations, you’ll need to use a photo scale to show their size and demonstrate their distance from other objects, says Schindler, who suggests using a measuring tape, ruler or photo documentation kit. Merck notes that you can also find free printable scales online, or use anything with a well-known size, such as a dollar bill. Take photos with and without evidence markers and photo scales to show nothing was concealed.

Nothing else you brought to the scene— person or object—should be in the photos you take, which is a good argument for ensuring that you get access to the scene immediately after it has been secured by law enforcement and before agency personnel alter the findings. Consider keeping a log of the photos you take. “Nobody wants to be in the position where they can’t identify their own evidence,” says Parascandola.

The “Second Crime Scene”

The animals are why you’re there. “It’s important to balance the need for evidence and the need to complete the case,” says Parascandola. If you have limited time and resources, don’t spend all your time photographing the width of food bowls—“100 percent most critical” is photos of the animals. Capture each animal— even if the animal is in critical condition or deceased.

You’ll want to relieve any animals’ suffering as quickly as possible, but in taking a few moments to document the scene, the difference is “minute,” says Schindler. Those few seconds or minutes likely won’t change the animal’s physical outcome. But the photographs you take can establish a more comprehensive case.

So pre-empt a defense lawyer’s loopholes. Always photograph an animal’s distinguishing marks (one white toe, for example) so that a lawyer can’t claim the animal in the photo isn’t the same animal in the case, says Merck. Take photos of the front, sides, top and bottom of the animal, as well as any signs of abuse or neglect.

Regardless of each animal’s condition, document it in good faith—whether it’s likely to be helpful to your case or not. Document all animals, and be specific in your focus—closely capture any injuries or wounds, overall body condition and notable specifics like skin, teeth, eye and paw problems. And take photos any time anything is altered, that day or over time, like a dog before and after shaving for surgery, or before and after veterinarians have fixed a broken leg.

Then, yes, get that animal to the onsite veterinarian—and videotape the examination, if you can (most digital cameras have this capability). It’s best to tape “anything that can be better appreciated through live recording,” like problems walking or “pain vocalizing,” says Merck. Completing such documentation on untreated animals might feel callous, but it can make all the difference for the prosecution—and therefore for the animals.

Aftermath

You now have hundreds, if not thousands, of photos that provide context, details and evidence both positive (e.g., fresh water) and negative (e.g., an untreated leg injury). Download all photos in their original sequence, and if there are multiple animals or objects of interest, sort photos into folders by evidence ID. The veterinarian, lead investigator and prosecutor will all need copies, and they may pass your photos on to expert witnesses.

Although good photos are the cornerstone of crime scene evidence, Schindler notes that even if you do everything right, your photos are in the hands of the legal system. Even the best photos can’t ensure an airtight case. “It’s not because you failed,” he says. It’s just the way it is.

But Parascandola shows a photo of a tiny dog—then 2 pounds—utterly dwarfed by a huge evidence marker at a crime scene in 2010. Her name is Rosa, and he later adopted her. If you’re there, he says, it’s because the animals’ ordeal is coming to an end.

About the Author

Bethany Wynn Adams is an editor at Animal Sheltering, a quarterly magazine for anyone who cares about the health and happiness of animals and their people, and animalsheltering.org. From tales of shelter mascots to guidance on backyard chickens, Bethany works with experts from across the country and within The Humane Society of the United States to bring wide-ranging, engaging print and web news to the animal welfare community. Winner of the Cat Writers' Association's MUSE Medallion, she lives in Maryland with her husband and two naughty rescue dogs.