U.S. "Animal Detectives" Fight Crime in Forensics Lab

April 2, 2003

Admirers call it "the wild world's Scotland Yard" whose scientists are "animal detectives."

Crimes against wildlife include illegal hunting, trafficking in endangered species, and producing and selling products made from endangered or threatened species. The task of sleuthing and solving these crimes falls to a federal laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.

The National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory is the only lab in the world dedicated to solving wildlife crimes. The lab's mission is to provide forensic support for wildlife managers and investigators thus stopping criminals and protecting animals—often endangered species.

The lab works with federal agents, the 50 State Fish-and-Game commissions and the roughly 155 countries that are signatories to CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—that oversees trade in wild plants and animals.

Every year the lab—currently a team of 33—handles about 900 cases.

"In a wildlife crime laboratory your evidence is often a carcass," says Ken Goddard, director of the lab since it opened in 1989, a former homicide detective in San Bernardino County, California and a prolific thriller novelist whose eighth novel "Outer Perimeter" was published by Bantam Books in 2001.

"We get pieces and parts—hides, furs, shoes, purses, ivory carvings, a lot of caviar," says Goddard. "When you start getting into the small pieces, strips of leather for watch band, chunks of meat, carvings of ivory, you've lost all those species-defining characteristics that made that evidence obviously from an elephant (for example)."

Forensics Park

The job of the lab is to determine the species source and analyze forensic evidence that could link it to a violation of wildlife law—and a human suspect. Occasionally the job requires forensics experts to testify in court or venture into the field when collecting the evidence is tricky. A particularly unusual case, says Goddard, occurred in 1991 when 300 headless walruses washed up on the Alaska coastline.

Caviar samples represent about one third of the lab's caseload. During the last three years, federal agents have seized about $180 million worth of caviar, inundating the lab with samples for testing.

The lab is always cautious when accepting new samples from public sources. "Our work annoys a lot of people, from organized crime/the Russian Mafia to caviar connoisseurs and even to the fashion trade," Goddard says. Though they have not received any dangerous packages, threatening phones calls are not uncommon.

To identify the species of a victim, the lab maintains what the scientists call, "Forensics Park," a warehouse of stuffed animals and animal parts—hides, claws, teeth, feathers—to serve as references to help identify creatures. There are 5000 complete, or almost complete, animals in the collection and more than 30,000 blood and tissue samples.

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