Whodunit, Doggone It?

Inside a four-legged genetics lab, where forensic scientists fight crime with tooth, claw--and DNA

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CANINE CSI: Kun in her lab with the DNA profiles of 48 animals

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In fact, the lab is so good at what it does that it may end up getting less work, not more. Forensic scientist Teri Kun remembers one customer who used to regularly send cattle samples seized from rustlers; these days he tends to get confessions as soon as suspects learn DNA tests will be ordered. For the same reason, it's rare than an animal- abuse case referred to the lab ever makes it to court. "Once you have the DNA analysis," says Wictum, "people end up pleading."

That doesn't make working on those cases any easier for Wictum and her colleagues. They remember the names of animals that have been fatally abused and refer to the people who do it as "serial killers." Kun, a mother of two, finds cases involving children as victims particularly difficult. "When I got samples for a case where a 6-year-old was mauled by dogs, I was glad I was alone in the lab," says Kun.

But amid the horrific tales of puppies in pillowcases and decapitated dogs, the scientists get a few laughs too. In 2004 some Texans sent samples of what they were convinced was a chupacabra--a legendary hairless beast that drains the blood of its prey. "We don't do that kind of work, but they submitted it in a roundabout way, so we didn't know what they were looking for," says Wictum. The chupacabra turned out to be a very mangy coyote.

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