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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fuzzy Forensics!

Air Date: Week of

Illegal hunting is a major problem in the U.S. as is the black-market trade in exotic pets, and the importation of products made from endangered species. The problem is so severe that officials have turned to the high-tech tools of human crime fighting to catch poachers and smugglers. They've built a forensic laboratory that's so sophisticated it's been dubbed the "Scotland Yard" of wildlife law enforcement. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick spent a day at the lab in Ashland, Oregon.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Murder, rape and robbery have been on the decline recently, but officials report that one category of violent crime hasn't gone down, crimes against wildlife. Illegal hunting is a major problem in the United States. So is the black market trade in exotic pets and the importation of products made from endangered species. The problem is so severe, officials have turned to the high-tech tools of human crime fighting to catch poachers and smugglers. They've built a forensic laboratory that's so sophisticated, it's been dubbed the Scotland Yard of wildlife law enforcement. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick spent a day at the lab in Ashland, Oregon.

(Creaking, fans. Voice: "This is lab item one dash zero one. Our species is Inca dove, age adult. Weight is 48 grams...")

FITZ PATRICK: Veterinarian Rhoda Ralston is preparing for a grim experience in the battle against wildlife crime. Before her on a stainless steel table are the bodies of 5 small doves that died mysteriously. Dr. Ralston must determine what killed them.

(Small motorized sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: The process begins with X-rays and photographs. Then, with surgical scissors and a scalpel, Dr. Ralston cuts through the delicate feathers of one bird to examine its internal organs.

Does this work get to you?

RALSTON: In a way it does, as far as you're seeing the dead animals. I guess I was just naive and was ignorant to what goes on out there.

(Instruments clatter)

FITZ PATRICK: This autopsy uncovers the cause of death when Dr. Ralston slits open the dove's throat. It's packed with tiny green pellets that the bird has eaten.

RALSTON: Preliminary diagnosis is suspected poisoning, strychnine.

FITZ PATRICK: Before the US Fish and Wildlife Service opened this lab 8 years ago, field agents lacked the scientific expertise to solve a crime like this. To make an arrest, agents had to catch a criminal in the act. Now, they can build a case by collecting physical evidence that links a suspect to the scene of the crime. State and Federal agents from around the country send the evidence here for analysis. The cases cover everything from mischievous teenagers who've killed a hawk to an angry rancher that stalked and shot a wolf. In incidents like these, investigators often find mangled feathers or a bloody clump of fur in the woods. Poachers are notorious for leaving clues behind, unaware that wildlife agents now employ the same tools that homicide detectives use to solve a murder.

(Metallic sounds, or broken glass)

The forensic lab has gotten so good it can crack a case with a drop of blood from a hunting knife. This kind of analysis isn't easy. Geneticists like Peter Dratch can spend days trying to prove that the victim was a protected animal.

DRATCH: We don't just deal with one species as they do in other crime labs, where they're basically dealing with human blood most of the time. Our job is to actually determine species.

(A buzzing sound)

FITZ PATRICK: To make that determination, the lab has collected 20,000 blood and tissue samples from around the world. They're kept in a freezer at 65 degrees below zero.

(Scooping sounds, buzzing in background)

FITZ PATRICK: These specimens allow Dr. Dratch to identify the protein and genetic signature of evidence sent to the lab. He can even tell if it comes from a male or a female.

DRATCH: And the reason why gender is important is because there are different laws for shooting males and females, bucks and does, or bulls and cows in the case of elk. And so very often a law can be broken because somebody has shot an animal of the wrong sex.

FITZ PATRICK: Dr. Dratch can determine if meat found in a hunter's home comes from a protected species. And with DNA testing, he can match the blood from a hunter's clothing or boots to a carcass left behind in the woods. This laboratory is the only facility of its type in the world, dedicated exclusively to solving wildlife crime. The 28 staffers here are constantly developing new techniques and equipment for a discipline that didn't exist just a decade ago. Some scientists like Mary Jack Mann feel it's more rewarding to solve crimes against animals than crimes against people.

MANN: For 6 years I worked homicides and really nasty crimes that humans do to humans. And more often than not, these were relationship battles of some kind or another. You took my woman. You took my money. But the animals out there are truly victims. They are truly blameless. They're not asking to have a violent act perpetrated upon them.

FITZ PATRICK: Throughout the lab, you see evidence of humanity's mistreatment of wildlife.

(A latch clicks)

FITZ PATRICK: Chief Scientist Ed Espinoza brings visitors to a warehouse packed to the ceiling with thousands of items.

ESPINOZA: One doesn't realize how many items are used from wildlife for decor or for personal use until you see this kind of stuff.

(Tapping sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: There's a stool made from the foot of an elephant. Shoes made from python or cobra skin. Asian medicines made with tiger bone, rhino horn, and the gall bladders of bears.

(A stringed instrument plays)

FITZ PATRICK: There are even musical instruments.

ESPINOZA: We have a guitar made from the shell of a sea turtle.

(Knocks on shell, strums)

FITZ PATRICK: These items were seized by customs inspectors under a treaty that bans importation of anything made from an endangered species. Scientists like Dr. Espinoza verify the object is illegal so the customs service can bring a suspect to trial.

(Clanking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Back in the autopsy room, work continues on those 5 poisoned doves.

RALSTON: The heart is normal. The liver is pale and friable.

FITZ PATRICK: Field agents in the state where these birds were found will determine if the poisoning was intentional or an accident. But without a proper autopsy here, they'd never have the option to prosecute.

(A camera shutter whiirs, takes photographs)

FITZ PATRICK: The work is tedious and it's easy to see how this single lab has been overwhelmed by the endless flood of bears and eagles and other dead animals shipped here for analysis. Their bodies are piling up in freezers. There is a 4-month backlog of cases. It's also easy to see why the people here, many of whom built their careers working with live animals, consider this work to be so important.

RALSTON: Even though I'm working with dead animals, it's a much more fulfilling thing as far as knowing that I'm doing something for critters that are really unable to protect themselves.

FITZ PATRICK: Dr. Rhoda Ralston of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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