In a stunning breach of ethics and/or competence, self-styled "animal CSI" expert, Dr. Melinda Merck (of the ASPCA) either misled the courts for the purpose of advancing her personal/professional agenda, or she displayed shocking incompetence in the field she pioneered and through which she rose to prominence.

How? By bungling two really high-profile cases in the same month.

"She doesn't have any credibility with me right now," Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick said in his courtroom last Tuesday as he lambasted prosecutors for slavishly relying on her testimony in a case in which a South Florida Great Dane was allegedly sexually abused by her owner.

The defendant, her 65-year-old owner, had made off-color jokes about his dog's sexual proclivities to a University of Florida technician last July, which legitimately prompted an investigation. Dr. Melinda Merck's involvement ensued, in which she claimed that she had discovered "severe vaginitis" and the presence of human semen in the dog's urine. This salient finding was reportedly corroborated by University of Florida staff but was ultimately refuted by at least four other forensics/pathology experts elsewhere.

The upshot of her findings was a warrant for the arrest of the Dane’s owner, a SWAT-like search of his residence (based on her claims that his alleged crimes represented a plausible pattern of criminally sexual behavior), his demolished reputation after the local media got wind of the story, and his dog's removal for the foreseeable future — which turned out to be a full four months.

All for nothing, as it turns out, seeing as no other expert reported anything remotely similar to what Dr. Merck sang to the hills in what is starting to look more like a witch hunt than an animal cruelty investigation. Owner exonerated. Stay tuned for the lawsuit that will follow on the heels of his name-clearing.

This shocking news comes just two weeks after reports of Dr. Merck's impressive mismanagement of the Miami cat killer case, in which she claimed a "crime" had been committed based on her necropsy findings. The cats had been eviscerated with a sharp instrument and presented in a stereotypically deviant way, this expert explained to the police.

Which is why the entire community was on guard for a deranged, mutilating "cat killer," and why everyone (myself included, I will admit) was pretty convinced that the "creepy" neighborhood teen — who misguidedly joked about the cats' deaths with police investigators, and who had taken up cat dissection classes in his free time — had committed these crimes. He ended up serving a year under house arrest based on that "evidence."

Again, it took a bevy of backup pathologists to refute Merck's findings. The animals, it turns out, had wounds obviously characteristic of animal bites, other forensics experts uniformly noted. No evidence of a scalpel-like instrument, as Dr. Merck had asserted, was ultimately supportable. Too bad they were recruited way too long after Merck's initial findings fueled the frenzy they did. Were it not for the baseless conclusions of this appointed expert, a community-wide panic and the decimation of one kid's late teen years could have been entirely averted.

Dr. Merck is director of veterinary forensic sciences for the ASPCA, an organization that counts her among the most prominent veterinary forensics experts in the world. It certainly doesn't hurt her reputation any that she's written a text on the subject and has served as an expert witness in cases as prominent as Michael Vick's. She's also a really big deal at the University of Florida, where she co-founded a veterinary forensic science training program (dubbed the "Animal CSI'").

Yes, her star has been relentlessly on the rise … until now. Which makes me think that were it not for these twin debacles (which may well result in legal action against her employers) she'd be making the rounds on Animal Planet in no time.

But wait — TV doesn't really care much about real life does it? Indeed, a television show may be the only place Dr. Merck will be playing the role of an "expert" anytime soon.


Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: "Health care reform?" by Creatures of the earth