The Charger Blog

University Introduces Innovative Program in Animal Cruelty Investigation

Virginia Maxwell, D.Phil., is a leader in the field of investigating animal cruelty, and she has developed a new online graduate certificate that is among the only such programs in the country.

June 3, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Virginia Maxwell and student in lab
Virginia Maxwell, D.Phil., (left) has developed a new online graduate certificate in animal cruelty investigation.

When Virginia Maxwell, D.Phil., was a child, she brought in the newspaper one morning and was shocked by what she saw: a photo of beagles being forced to inhale cigarette smoke. The dogs were part of an experiment to determine whether or not smoking cigarettes caused cancer. Dr. Maxwell, who was an animal lover then as well as now, was horrified by the now iconic photo.

Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Maxwell learned of a particularly heinous case of animal abuse in Quincy, MA, now known as the “Puppy Doe” case. A pit bull – that had been so badly abused that it later had to be euthanized – escaped its abuser by dragging itself out of the house, since it could no longer walk. The dog’s owner was convicted of 12 counts of animal cruelty, gaining the attention of animal activists across the country – including Dr. Maxwell.

Virginia Maxwell
Virginia Maxwell, D.Phil., is an advocate for animals, including farm animals.

“The poor dog had been offered on Craigslist as ‘free to a good home,’ and over more than 70 days, she was brutally abused,” explained Dr. Maxwell, a forensic science professor at the University. “The abuser has the record for the highest sentence in an animal cruelty case. When I returned to my faculty position after serving as associate dean, I decided to focus on animal cruelty investigation.”

Dr. Maxwell is now helping to train the next leaders in investigating animal cruelty cases. She has developed a new graduate certificate in animal cruelty investigation at the University, a one-year program that will begin this fall. Because it is fully online, it is open to students around the world. Students will be also able to begin the program in January.

“The program is basically the first of its kind in the country,” said Dr. Maxwell, who is also co-writing a textbook on crime scene investigation for animal cruelty. “There aren’t many programs like this out there, and I’m excited to get it off the ground. It’s been a dream of mine to do this. Because we have the might of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, we’re a good fit for this.”

‘Animal abuse is a predictor’

Designed for students in a wide variety of fields, the certificate is intended for those who might be first responders to an animal cruelty case, such as police and animal control officers. It also is geared toward lawyers as well as veterinarians or veterinary students who, Dr. Maxwell says, don’t always get to take a course on veterinary forensics.

The program includes four courses, and Dr. Maxwell hopes to later add electives to the curriculum. The first class, taught by Leila Dutton, Ph.D., a criminal justice professor, explores the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence. It will, says Dr. Maxwell, illustrate why it is so critical to intervene in cases of animal cruelty.

“Animal abuse is a predictor,” said Dr. Maxwell, who is also a passionate advocate for farm animals. “Child abuse, elder abuse, intimate partner abuse, and animal abuse all go hand in hand. If you have domestic violence in a household, most of the time you have animal cruelty going on as well. If we can intercept a teenager who is abusing animals, maybe we can stop them before they abuse people.”

‘It’s important from the human perspective’

The initial course is followed by “Animal Cruelty Investigation,” taught by Lisa Dadio M.S., MSW, a retired police lieutenant from the New Haven Police Department. It explores topics such as search warrants, which can be tricky, as animals are considered to be property. Students will also learn about documenting crime scenes and writing reports.

Dr. Maxwell teaches the third course, which covers forensic investigation of animal cruelty, including the evidence generated by certain types of cases. She has already taught this course in-person, and it has been very popular among her students.

The final course in the program will be an independent study, enabling the students, who will represent a wide variety of backgrounds, demographics, and fields, to explore what is most meaningful for them. They will have the opportunity to work closely with Prof. Dadio, Dr. Dutton, or Dr. Maxwell.

“I’m hoping this opportunity will give students a new perspective, maybe jumpstart a career change or change the way they’re currently doing their job,” said Dr. Maxwell. “I hope they realize how important this is, and not just because they are animal lovers. It’s important from the human perspective, too, because of this incredible link between animal cruelty and other criminal behavior.”