by Amy Abern, Executive Editor, tailsinc.com Â
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society of Missouri (HSMO), and the Louisiana SPCA (LA/SPCA) have created Canine CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the nation’s first criminal dogfighting DNA database. The system was developed to help the criminal justice system investigate and prosecute dogfighting cases.
It is housed and maintained at the University of California (UC Davis) Veterinary Genetics Laboratory.
Tim Rickey, former HSMO animal cruelty task force director; Kathryn Destreza, the ASPCA’s southeast regional director, field investigation and response, and former director of humane law enforcement for the Louisiana SPCA; Dr. Melinda Merck, the ASPCA’s senior director of veterinary forensic sciences; and Dr. Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA’s senior vice president of anti-cruelty initiatives and training, have joined forces to build the database.
Canine CODIS was developed to decrease dogfighting activity, serve as an aid into dogfighting, and to provide crucial evidence at related trials. In a recent press release, Rickey stated, "Dogfighting is a multi-million-dollar criminal enterprise that leads to the cruel treatment and deaths of thousands of dogs nationwide every year. This database is an unprecedented and vital component in the fight against animal cruelty and will allow us to strengthen cases against animal abusers and seek justice for their victims."
Canine CODIS stores DNA profiles of dogs involved in dogfighting in computerized archives, just as the FBI’s CODIS does with DNA samples from criminals. Methods of gathering DNA samples are similar as well, with the swabbing of dogs’ inner cheeks to collect the animals’ saliva.Â After last year’s multi-state raid that led to the nation’s largest dogfighting seizure in history, DNA samples from the more than 400 dogs in the raid were sent to Canine CODIS.
Beth Wictum serves as the director of the forensic unit at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at UC Davis.
"Currently, we have just under 400 canine DNA samples," says Wictum. "Because DNA is such strong evidence, if you do the DNA testing, defendants are more likely to plead than go to trial. The strongest point of this database is to discourage dog fighters from continuing."
There’s no doubt that DNA is a powerful identifying tool and would be useful in efforts to decrease and prevent dogfighting. There are, however, concerns that the DNA samples in Canine CODIS may be used beyond its intended scopeÂ¬–specifically, as a means to genetically test for aggression in dogs.
Founder of the Animal Law Coalition, lawyer Laura Allen, expressed concern regarding Canine CODIS.
"It’s one thing if the DNA is used as a genetic fingerprint to identify a dog in dogfighting," says Allen. "My concern is what if that identification is used for other purposes, for instance, to identify aggression in genes. This could set back all the work done to ban breed-specific legislation and trivialize the importance of nurture in the human/animal bond. If the use of DNA is to identify the dog, that’s one thing–as long as that information isn’t used to label or classify the dog."
Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney for Best Friends Animal Society, adopted one of the 400 dogs who were rescued from last year’s raid. Therefore, her dog’s DNA is now in Canine CODIS. And that concerns her.Â
"DNA is being used in ways we never fathomed," says VanKavage. "Say they find some genetic marker that suggests the dog might be predisposed to aggression. Then that information could be used to declare the dog, even the breed, as vicious. It could be used to create the kinds of breed-specific bans we’ve been working so hard to combat."