Some thought it might be a hyena. Others believed it was a "hybrid mutant" spawned by an unholy sexual union between species unknown. But by all accounts, the Maine Beast was one nasty creature, with a warthog-style snout, beady eyes, and a habit of ripping apart local dogs.
So when the Beast was found dead at the side of a road in Maine last month, its blue lips frozen in a final grimace, there was an obvious question: Just what was it, anyway?
As with countless other creature mysteries, the answer led to HealthGene, a Toronto laboratory that has made a worldwide name for itself by applying CSI-style DNA-testing techniques to the animal kingdom. Each day, couriers arrive with boxes that may contain anything from a vial of cat's blood to a stool sample from a multimillion-dollar stud horse to a scale from a Komodo dragon.
Not long ago, a paw hacked from the Maine Beast arrived at the company's Keele Street lab, packed in a small plastic cooler. Laboratory director Dr. Yuri Melekhovets was unfazed at the prospect of probing the origins of the creature that had terrorized select portions of Maine.
"We do a lot of tests," he says. "This was just another one."
Within days, Dr. Melekhovets and his teams of technicians had debunked the Beast. After extracting DNA from the paw and comparing it to the genetic makeup of species that included wolves, foxes and humans, HealthGene determined that the Beast was nothing more than a really ugly, feral dog with a lineage that may have included a chow, which contributed its blue lips.
"Not a good-looking animal," Dr. Melekhovets says. "But it was a dog."
HealthGene's customers include thousands of veterinaries, zoos, animal breeders, and pet owners from around the world. "There's a lot more business out there than you'd think," Dr. Melekhovets says. Although DNA testing on humans gets the most attention, thanks to high-profile criminal cases, celebrity paternity suits and shows like CSI, its use in the animal world has revolutionized a number of areas, including high-priced stud services.
The lab has done thousands of tests for the purchasers of expensive race horses, puppies, kittens and birds who want assurance that the animal they've purchased really did come from the elite parents listed on the paperwork. The biggest market is show dogs, a world of high-priced studs and pedigreed bitches where lineage assumes Royal Family importance.
"People want to make sure that the father is a champion, not some dog from someone's backyard," Dr. Melekhovets says. "There have been some surprises."
Dr. Melekhovets has appeared at numerous trials involving show dog owners contesting their animal's background. In many cases, DNA tests revealed that the illustrious dog listed on the papers was not the father. There have also been several cases where the owners of studs sued for unpaid sexual services, claiming that their dog had impregnated a bitch without getting credit. HealthGene's DNA paternity test provided conclusive answers -- and forced many bitch owners to pay up.
The cases can be expensive and nasty, says Dr. Melekhovets "These are not pleasant stories," he says. "Believe me."
DNA testing can also determine whether animals are the carriers of genetic defects that may cripple their offspring. Horse breeders, for example, regularly ask HealthGene to order tests for HYPP (Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis), a condition that can make an apparently-healthy animal seize up in moments of extreme stress -- like at the finish line of the Kentucky Derby, or in a breeding-shed session.
HealthGene's tests have also spared at least one animal from execution -- like when an Ontario farmer arrived in a truck loaded with the corpse of a prize calf that had been killed by a dog. The farmer asked HealthGene to compare the DNA found on the calf with every dog in the area, including his own, so he could decide which one to shoot. (Fortunately for the dogs, there was no match.)
Then, there was the case of the missing cat. A Toronto man hunted high and low when his cat failed to return home one night. Not far from his home, he saw a small patch of blood in the snow, and wondered if someone had hit his cat, then hid the body. He put the stained snow in a cooler and took it to HealthGene, which compared the blood to a sample of his cat's saliva that they extracted from a toy. It was a match, proving that someone had given the man's cat the Jimmy Hoffa treatment.
"At least we could give him an answer," Dr. Melekhovets says.
The tests cost the man about $300. Other clients have spent thousands on lab work, including DNA tests that can pinpoint the cause of infections and diseases. "To a lot of people, animals are members of the family," Dr. Melekhovets says. "They'll spend whatever it takes."
Animal DNA testing has also provided a foolproof way of determining sex -- a job that can be extremely tricky with species that have no exterior genitalia or other giveaways. Komodo dragons, for example, defy even the most expert observer (and the prospect of a pelvic exam on a giant man-eating lizard is far from appealing).
Birds are also difficult. The sex of some parrots, for example, can't be determined until the birds are about a year old, when a black ring appears around the male's neck. In the past, breeders determined sex by cutting the birds open to examine their internal plumbing; up to 25 per cent of the birds died in the process. DNA testing has provided foolproof, non-invasive testing -- a development that has no doubt been greeted with considerable relief by parrots who once faced the knife.
At the HealthGene lab, technicians work at tables covered with vials, centrifuges, nucleic acid sequencers, and computers that run complex analyses. Samples -- and in some cases, corpses -- are kept in stainless steel medical freezers. Along with animal work, the company is known for its expertise in human DNA techniques. Dr. Melekhovets has worked on countless criminal cases, including a number where his company was asked to provide a "second opinion" on DNA samples used by the prosecution. (In some cases, the testing has helped produce an acquittal after errors were discovered.)
The company also does an increasing amount of business with individuals who suspect their spouses of infidelity. Thousands of people have sent in items that include stained sheets, soiled clothing and toothbrushes to see if they contain DNA from someone other than themselves. Some cases have involved unexpected twists.
One example was a California woman who suspected that her husband was having women over while she was away because she kept finding different strands of strange hair in their bedroom. After testing a series of samples, the lab told her that the hairs were male. More than a few of the human cases involve Jerry Springer Show-style domestic complication -- like the two Texas brothers who wanted to know which of them had fathered a woman's child.
Dr. Melekhovets says the best way to approach human DNA cases is by maintaining scientific objectivity: "We just do the tests," he says. "We don't ask questions."
The company's lab is divided into human and animal-testing divisions, even though the equipment and techniques are identical. The reasons for the division are purely for psychological and marketing reasons -- customers don't want their blood or urine-filled vial sitting next to one taken from a dog or a snake.
"People don't like that," Dr. Melekhovets says.