Profiles in Leadership is a monthly interview that showcases outstanding leaders and bright minds in the veterinary health profession.
Dr. Merck is the incoming President of the NAVC Board of Directors for North American Veterinary Conference and is Program Chair for our Veterinary Forensics: Animal CSI track. She is the founding chair of the Board of Directors for the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association.
Dr. Merck is the owner of Veterinary Forensics Consulting, LLC, (www.veterinaryforensics.com) in Austin, Texas. She’s a forensic veterinarian consulting on cases involving animals. She assists investigators of animal cruelty with crime scene investigation as well as the examination of live and deceased victims. Dr. Merck helps with large scale operations including exhumations of burial sites and examination of skeletal animal remains. She frequently testifies as a veterinary forensic expert for animal cruelty cases around the country and provides training for veterinary, attorney and law enforcement professionals internationally on the use of veterinary medical knowledge in the investigation and prosecution of animal cruelty cases.
Dr. Merck is on the WSAVA Animal Wellness and Welfare Committee and the Association of Prosecuting Attorney’s Animal Cruelty Advisory Council. She is the author of the textbook “Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigation, 2nd edition” by Wiley publishing, the co-author of the book “Veterinary Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty: A Guide for Veterinarians and Law Enforcement,” and a contributing author on forensics in other textbooks.
She developed the first Veterinary Forensics course for University of Georgia and Florida veterinary schools and frequently lectures at other veterinary and technician colleges. She teaches workshops on animal crime scenes and the processing of burial and surface remains. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Science and member of the International Association of Blood Stain Analysts.
NAVC: We appreciate your long term commitment to NAVC. Starting as a speaker at our 2004 conference, you’ve accepted increasing levels of responsibility, culminating in January in becoming president of our Board of Directors. What is it about NAVC that has kept you intrigued and involved?
Dr. Merck: I love the challenge and commitment that we have to finding new and innovative ways to provide educational opportunities for the veterinary community. It is exciting to work with such a great group of people with passion and synergy to elevate our profession and affect positive change.
NAVC: From reviewing your accomplishments and experience, it’s obvious that leadership runs in your DNA. What do you attribute that to?
Dr. Merck: My parents: they both came from blue collar and farming roots in Texas. My father earned an associate’s degree and was hired by IBM. He went on to become the youngest branch manager in IBM history. My mother was a stay at home mom until we graduated high school. She then went back to school and obtained her nursing degree. They both taught me I could do and be anything!
NAVC: Is there a quotation, poem or song that personifies your passion for your work? What is important to you that you be known for?
Dr. Merck: For a quotation: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. For a song, “The Story” – I was definitely made to help animals. I want to be known for making a difference for animals and the veterinarians charged with ensuring their welfare.
NAVC: People refer to you as the animal CSI, a unique leadership role in the veterinary profession. Obviously technology plays a big role in doing this work. What other significant elements contribute to the process? Does the satisfaction of using science to nail the perpetrators outweigh the negatives that come with the job?
Dr. Merck: We have seen a tremendous growth in interest and application of human forensic science to animal cases. It is exciting to work with other experts and explore how their fields of expertise can support a cruelty investigation. The satisfaction does not come from the case outcome; it comes from knowing we used everything we could in our ‘forensic toolkit’ for the case.
NAVC: The horrendous situations you learn about in your practice have got to take their toll on you emotionally. Do you experience something like compassion fatigue from the empathy you feel for the animals? How do you manage your emotions so your effectiveness is not compromised?
Dr. Merck: It is critical to manage emotions and maintain objectivity in legal cases. Veterinarians typically have learned to compartmentalize emotions on a daily basis in practice in order to focus on each and every case they see. In cruelty cases, it helps to rely on the team involved in the case for support, the investigator and prosecutor, to help maintain perspective. It is also important to have life balance – to have something you do for yourself that makes you centered and whole again. I do yoga and walking. I also like to be creative with quilting and needle work – make something beautiful.
NAVC: Your testimony and forensic determinations were instrumental in the successful prosecution of Michael Vick for cruelty to animals. You excavated two mass graves and then analyzed the 10 bodies that were removed. That high profile case captured the public’s attention and empathy. Since most cases are far less visible, how can the focus on deterrents and solutions remain sharp enough to produce the changes necessary to make a difference?
Dr. Merck: Any cruelty case has a high profile in that community no matter how big or small the area. This is what makes a difference on the local level. We have now seen a major change from law enforcement with the National Sheriff’s Association and the FBI acknowledging the link of animal abuse to crimes against humans and supporting cruelty investigations.
NAVC: On behalf of our profession, we thank you for your role in increasing the severity of punishment for crimes against animals. Were you surprised by the push back you initially encountered with legislators? It seems like cruelty to animals would be offensive to everyone.
Dr. Merck: In working with the State legislature in Georgia, I learned there are a lot of factors I had never considered would be issues when trying to change animal cruelty laws. I did learn an important lesson: the State representatives do not often hear from their constituents. Therefore when they receive emails and phone calls on an issue they take notice. The public has a tremendous amount of influence if they take the time to make the call.
NAVC: A few years ago, you were part of the Maddie’s Fund Shelter Medicine Program that received a $5 million grant to partner with the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine to develop a unique shelter medicine program that was the first of its kind in the U.S. Tell us more about the Program and how it influenced the incorporation of forensic training to shelter medicine residents.
Dr. Merck: At the time this was the largest grant ever awarded by the Maddie’s Fund. It was unique in that it incorporated the development of the first Veterinary Forensics elective course for the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. This award supported not only a shelter medicine residency program but also provided forensic training for the residents. This is now a critical part of shelter medicine training for the new ABVP Shelter Medicine board certification.
NAVC: NAVC relies on partnerships and sponsorships to produce quality events and affordable onsite and online education. What’s in it for those willing to invest in NAVC? Why are we a good choice?
Dr. Merck: NAVC offers one of the most complete package of unique educational opportunities for the veterinary community reaching the profession on a national and international level. We provide exciting and innovative ways to enhance learning for our profession offering our sponsors and partners multiple avenues to reach and support the community. Whatever they need, we are committed to making it happen!
NAVC: What are you looking forward to, both personally and professionally?
Dr. Merck: I am looking forward to an exciting year for NAVC! We have so many things we are working on and have our beautiful new venue at the Orange County Convention Center for the 2017 Conference. Personally, I hope to spend more quality time with my geriatric animal household balancing my professional duties as President of NAVC!