ASHLAND, Ore. — In a non-descript office complex, 25 scientists are equipped with some very high-tech machines and a colony of flesh-eating beetles.
They are searching for evidence that will link human suspects to animal victims.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of enforcing dozens of laws and treaties, including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. For all this, the service has just one official crime lab. It’s the only lab in the world dedicated to crimes against wildlife.
Ken Goddard is the lab’s wry-humored, white-haired director.
“I’ve never drawn a chalk line around a butterfly,” he jokes. “But we do work on endangered species of butterfly cases.”
Museum Meets Crime Lab
Goddard describes the lab as a combination of a natural history museum, a traditional crime lab, and a research facility.
Coolers arrive via UPS and FedEx at the lab’s secure loading dock, sent by Fish and Wildlife enforcement agents and customs inspectors from across the country and around the world. Some of the coolers contain meat samples; others hold carcasses. The lab receives suspected tiger penises, poisoned eagles, and the occasional dead skunk. A yellow evidence tag is attached to each delivery.
The starting point for most investigations here is species identification.
“They were the first lab, the first wildlife forensics lab that really started to tackle the identification of exotic species,” says Eric Cooper, a trade expert with the World Wildlife Federation and former Canadian wildlife investigator.
Regulations of wildlife hunting and trade tend to be species-specific.
“Oftentimes, with wildlife crimes, the first question is, what is it and was there a crime?” he says. That’s different from human criminal cases, in which the first question is generally, who did it?
For decades, most wildlife crime prosecutions in North America involved a relatively limited number of game species, like elk and deer. Then, in 1975, the United States and Canada signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The legal trade in wildlife is estimated at $240 billion a year. Global trade in illegal wildlife was estimated at between $5 billion and more than $20 billion — and growing. That was in 2008.
“Now all of a sudden, these countries need to enforce regulations and be able to identify 34,000 species. And they’re not always found whole,” Cooper says.
What is it?
The forensics lab in Ashland uses two basic tools, morphology and DNA, to identify species.
To assist with tricky identifications, the morphology lab maintains a collection of thousands of known examples species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
On a recent afternoon, the lab’s morphology director, Barry Baker, is staring in at a pair of reptile feet in a petri dish, evidence submitted to the lab.
“They are crocodilian feet of some type. I don’t have the whole foot represented, just part of the skin and a few claws,” he says.
“All crocodilians are protected in international trade, so there’s a potential violation here.”
Barker says there’s never been anything written on how to tell crocodile and alligator species apart using only their feet.
Barker will compare his crocodilian feet with specimens in the collection to try to narrow down his identification.
Baker and the other scientists here spend a lot of his time examining purses and boots, determining whether something is made from a real endangered reptile, or has been faked using another type of leather.
“Some of the hardest fakes to tease out are some of the black patent-leather, apparently crocodile handbags,” he says. Further complicating the identification, Baker often has to investigate an item without cutting it up.
“If it turned out to be fake, that person could get it back, and then we’ve destroyed a $30,000 handbag.”
View Wildlife Forensics Lab in a larger map
In cases where species identification proves particularly tricky, the lab relies on genetics. A series of sealed, clean lab rooms allow the teams’ genetic scientists to extract wildlife DNA from specimens as small as a single hair, without contaminating their samples.
As in morphology, the lab maintains a vast collection of known DNA samples it can use to compare to its unknowns.
Ken Goddard gestures to a half-dozen industrial-looking freezers in one of the lab’s locked rooms.
“I think we’ve got 40,000 DNA samples here from about 15,000 different species,” he says. “We do not have bigfoot or E.T.”
In addition to directing this lab, Goddard is the author of several popular science fiction novels and thrillers, and fans of his work often assume the Ashland lab is hiding government secrets.
How Did It Die?
Pathology, or determining the cause of wildlife death, is a second core function of this lab and a key to prosecuting may crimes.
Tabitha Viner was once on the staff of the National Zoo in Washington D.C. Now she’s the lab’s senior veterinary pathologist.
“Our job is to figure out what killed the animal,” Viner says.
Viner is examining a bald eagle that was found among a group of dead eagles and coyotes. An agent suspected the animals had been poisoned.
“The first thing we’ll do is X-rays of the animal, to check for projectile fragments and broken bones,” she says. The full necropsy will take about half a day. Viner will search for signs of bruising, trauma, and organ damage. She can send samples of blood and tissue to be tested for toxics.
“In pathology, you actually get to get elbow deep in what you’re looking for,” she says.
When the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico two years ago, more than 200 dead pelicans were shipped here for investigation. Viner documented oil on and inside the birds, and was able to conclusively show most had been killed by the spill.
The scientists at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory rarely learn whether their evidence leads to successful prosecutions of wildlife crime. Goddard, the lab’s director, says the lab staff learns as little as possible about suspects to avoid biasing their evaluations of evidence.
Ernie Cooper, with the World Wildlife Fund, says the lab has made a critical difference in making it possible to prosecute wildlife crime, particularly the international trade of endangered species.
Cooper says there are few reliable statistics that illustrate that impact, but believes that the prosecutions are very effective at deterring crime. He says a telling statistic is how rare it is to have repeat violators- when somebody is prosecuted and convicted they rarely offend a second time.
“There’s a saying that laws without enforcement are just advice. And its’ very true. I’ve been to parks in Africa where there is no hunting allowed, but there are no animals left. Without enforcement you don’t have conservation.”