Oct. 24, 2022
By Jens Odegaard
What is a veterinarian’s role in investigating animal cruelty cases? That’s one of the central questions that Dr. Kris Otteman, DVM ’86, answers with her new book “Animal Cruelty Investigations: A Collaborative Approach from Victim to Verdict.”
However, this wasn’t a question Otteman was asking for the first 20 years of her veterinary career. After graduating from the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, she entered private mixed-animal practice in her hometown of Klamath Falls, Oregon where she worked for almost nine years. She then became part of the founding team of what is now Banfield Pet Hospital, which currently operates more than 1,000 veterinary clinics around the world.
“In both of those scenarios, the private practice or the Banfield practice, I didn't ever really have animal cruelty on my radar,” Otteman said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book.”
It’s common advice in the literary world to write what you know, and it was in 2006, with another shift in her career, that Otteman started gaining the knowledge that she’s now sharing along with co-authors Linda Fielder and Emily Lewis.
A Veterinarian’s Role
The Oregon Humane Society is the Northwest’s largest animal welfare organization. In 2006 Otteman became its first veterinarian. She was brought on board to help establish and open an in-house medical center at OHS in Portland, Oregon. Prior to her arrival, all veterinary care for OHS was provided off-site by private practice veterinarians. She also joined to launch a partnership with her alma mater where all fourth-year students at the CCVM would rotate through the new medical center in Portland spending a few weeks getting lots of hands-on surgical experience (the partnership is ongoing to this day).
Otteman was excited to enter this emerging world of shelter medicine, but, in doing so, also encountered the world of animal cruelty and neglect.
“That was really the first time I'd been exposed to working animal cruelty cases because there was a law enforcement team there,” Otteman said. “Within a week of working at Oregon Humane, I went out on my first search warrant case, and we brought in 148 rabbits. And so that just really started it for me.”
Each case continued to impress on her the importance of the work. “Going on scene to a case and seeing the specific physical situation that animals were left in or kept in was beyond what I had ever experienced and really made me hungry for the opportunity to get them out of there, and fix them up and get them homed,” Otteman said.
Otteman soon became a key member and, within a couple of years, lead of the OHS Humane Investigations Team, which she was part of until her retirement in 2021. The team includes veterinarians like herself, legal experts and OHS hospital and shelter staff with specialty training.
Each team member brings a skillset that’s needed to fully understand each case. For veterinarians, Otteman realized: “We have a very specific and important role that is based on our basic clinical knowledge. The bottom line is that veterinarians can give a voice to the animal victim that is otherwise quiet.”
As an example, Otteman outlined a case where a dog owner was suspected of neglect because a neighbor noticed that the animal looked emaciated. The neighbor filed a report with authorities. The veterinarian’s role in this example would be to examine the dog and medically determine whether it really was a case of starvation, or if perhaps there were other health concerns, like cancer, that were actually causing the issue. “We can't expect law enforcement or prosecutors to do that” Otteman said.
Working at OHS, Otteman was empowered to develop the veterinarian’s role both personally and also for her profession. Veterinary forensics is a fairly new field in veterinary medicine, with the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association being founded in 2008. “This was an obvious void in my profession,” Otteman said. “And in the agency I was working in this was a, ‘Wow we can put some structure around this, and we can figure out the role of the medical services and how it interfaces with everyone else.’ So that gave me passion.”
Over the years, case by case, Otteman and her colleagues honed their craft.
It was as part of this team that she met her co-authors on the book: Emily Lewis, an attorney, and Linda Fielder, an expert in evidence collection and forensics. Lewis and Fielder both now work in leadership roles with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which takes on cases from across the country. For more than 10 years, Otteman, Lewis and Fielder worked together with their fellow OHS team members, investigating hundreds of neglect and abuse cases and collecting the evidence to prosecute if needed.
This collaboration led to their aha moment. “Trying to put this book together, it started with, ‘Wow, we have a lot of knowledge.’ Because we worked in and led this team for over 10 years collectively. And we had the views of the vet, the lawyer, the investigator and figured out how important it is to collaborate. Every expert working in animal cruelty case has a very specialized and important role and the successful investigation and potential adjudication of a case just can't happen without that collaboration. If you don't have a vet to determine injury or extent of injury or cause of death, it might not go anywhere. If you don't have a prosecutor that understands the animal laws an investigator that knows how to ask questions related to animal husbandry and animal health, it might not go anywhere,” Otteman said. “The idea here is just to provide a really practical, hands-on guide for the collaborative response to an animal cruelty case.”
The three of them put their heads together and developed a guide with examples, forms, templates, checklists and advice on how to leverage each team member’s expertise to successfully investigate animal crimes. They are now working on adapting content from the book into presentations they can share around the country to those doing the work.
Otteman is also adapting the book into a course outline that she hopes to make available to veterinary schools around the world for curricular use in training veterinary students. If all goes well, she wants to pilot it at Oregon State. “I want to make sure [students] understand the veterinarian does have a role in animal cruelty investigations, and that it's not up to somebody else,” Otteman said. “And so when called upon to have the confidence to help in some way using applied clinical skills.”
With the book and all its offshoots, Otteman, Fielder and Lewis hope to inspire their colleagues that they can and need to answer the question: what’s my role in animal cruelty investigation? “The big lesson is just seeing the difference you can make to the animals and to the community by doing this work,” Otteman said, “The big lesson is, ‘Wow, if we hadn't have stepped in, and helped and done our duty here there would be a lot of suffering and, in some cases, there would be no one held accountable.’”