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Byrd says that while this program can be a way to start a career in the field, right now most of the students are already in a related job.
"The number of people breaking into this field via this kind of program is growing each semester," he says, "but our main student base at the moment [is] people who already have jobs and are already trying to do this, like a veterinarian who's trying to do case consulting, or an animal control officer who's never had any formal training in this — it's all been on-the-job training, so they've jumped at the opportunity to have a formal education."
The wide variety of professions involved in animal crime investigations means that potential students have varied backgrounds and goals, so there are a number of options within the program. For the two-year master's degree, a science background is required for admission, and there are two options: with and without a thesis. For those with a more practical focus and/or background in other areas, there is a graduate certificate, as well as the option to simply take some of the courses without pursuing a degree, both online and in person.
Besides being a training opportunity for people in the various related professions, the creation of this program is part of a larger context, Byrd says. In the past, on-the-job learning meant that expertise had been decided on a case-by-case basis, but now the field of forensics is moving toward independent certifications.
"If you're going to testify in court, the gatekeeper for the expert witness has always been the judge — if the judge deems you an expert witness in his court, then congratulations, you can testify," he says. "Now, we're trying to put a little more independent verification on that, so that people who do testify in court or do legal case work in any of the forensic disciplines are themselves certified."
And, he says, that's one way in which veterinary forensics should be exactly the same as any other kind.
"If someone's going to be prosecuted, the standards for evidence to appear in court need to be the same, whether it's animal crime, wildlife poaching or crimes against other humans," he says. "We can't have veterinary forensic science be one of the only legal areas of prosecution where everybody has to learn it themselves. We've got law enforcement, veterinarians and traditional forensic science that we have to bring together to have meaningful information to prosecute a case. That's ultimately what this program does: provide the academic background to bring those three groups together to present scientifically valid information in court."
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