CSI: Animal Kingdom Can DNA evidence prove that a walrus was poached? Who is responsible for taking down illegal caviar traffickers? A scientist from an animal forensics lab in the U.S. and a National Fish and Wildlife special agent talk about busting crimes against non-human species.
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CSI: Animal Kingdom

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CSI: Animal Kingdom

CSI: Animal Kingdom

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

We've all seen those CSI detective shows. They're all over the place on TV. They usually involve some homo sapiens lying on the ground, or in a bed, or someplace in a pool of blood. But you know, there is a whole other world of CSI that you hardly ever get to see on TV, and that's wildlife CSI - crimes involving animals, where the victims have hooves or tusks or feathers, and the witnesses never talk, but they might crow.

And so for the rest of the hour, the world of illegal animal trafficking, where bear gallbladders, ounce for ounce, cost more than cocaine. Forensic teams fly to remote regions in Alaska to investigate beaches littered with beheaded walruses. Now that's a CSI show.

These crime scene scientists have to actually develop methods on the fly, like the protocol for a walrus autopsy; or the unique DNA signature in bear bile. Say that three times.

It's a world where undercover agents buy vials of crushed tiger bone or pounds of caviar to get in there tight with the criminals. And there's only one forensic lab in the whole world that handles this stuff, and the director of that lab is here to talk about it, and he's one of my two guests. Let me introduce them. Ken Goddard is the director of the National Fish and Wildlife Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. KEN GODDARD (National Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Laurel Neme is the author of the book "Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensic Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. LAUREL NEME (Author): Thank you.

FLATOW: Dr. Goddard, how'd you get involved in this?

Mr. GODDARD: First of all, I'm not a doctor. I got to a masters degree. I was running a police crime lab when I got the opportunity to set up a crime lab for wildlife. I'd been a homicide investigator, a crime-scene investigation, did all the homo-sapiens type of investigations, and this just seemed intriguing.

FLATOW: And Dr. Neme, you are a doctor.

Dr. NEME: I am a Ph.D. type.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And what was your motivation for writing this book?

Dr. NEME: Well, I'd been working in the field for about 10 years, going back and forth to Africa, working on natural-resource management, and one day I was talking to this Tanzanian game warden about a 10-year-old case where poachers had scattered these tainted pumpkins around watering holes, and then the elephants would eat them and die.

And at first they didn't know what was happening to these elephants, why they were dying, if it was a new cause, you know, a new disease or whatnot, but all of them were missing their tusks. And it turned out that this game warden had done training at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Lab, and with the help of that lab and subsequence investigation, they discovered that poachers were, in fact, poisoning these pumpkins, and they did that so that they could slide out the tusks instead of hacking them out of the elephant.

And in the middle of our conversation, the phone rings. And when he hangs up, he tells me that they just found a bunch of hippos who'd been poisoned in the very same manner for their ivory teeth. And I realized two things, one that this poisoning for profit was not going to stop, and secondly that this lab was having an impact 10 years later in this hippo case because it was giving them a lot of clues to the method of the poachers, even though it wasn't directly involved. So that's when I started investigating the cases.

FLATOW: So is it actually possible to go to the crime scene there and use all the clues and figure out who the poachers are?

Dr. NEME: It is, it is, especially once you start knowing what to look for.

FLATOW: Uh-huh, and it's not the kind of stuff we're normally thinking about.

Dr. NEME: No because at first, they weren't looking at all at the pumpkins. They were just looking at the animals and thinking they had a new disease on their hand.

FLATOW: Dr. Goddard, what is the difference? What is the transition like from moving from human CSI to animal CSI?

Mr. GODDARD: There isn't a lot of difference. You know, all crime labs do basically the same thing. We examine evidence in a triangular fashion. We try to link suspect, victim and crime scene together. The real difference in our case is our victim is a non-human animal, and we have to figure out what it is first to determine what type of crime has been committed.

Lots of variations, you know: time of day, was it legal to hunt this animal, is this animal a hybrid, in which case it might be perfectly legal to kill it. What time of day was it killed in terms of hunting season? What kind of weapon? So things you don't run into in a normal homicide investigation.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk about the animal CSI. Give me an example of what a typical case would be like.

Mr. GODDARD: Oh, the typical case for us ranges from anything from a feather coming in to hundreds of samples of caviar for possible smuggling, poaching or just illegal commercialization; Asian medicinals coming in from China, Southeast Asia, containing perhaps rhino horn, tiger-bone potions; deer or elk, moose meat; wolf possibly killed by a rancher, possibly going after sheep; just dozens and dozens of variations on a theme.

FLATOW: It seems, Dr. Neme, that you must have had lots of cases, then, to choose from. How did you choose which ones to put in your book?

Dr. NEME: You're absolutely right. I had hundreds to choose from. And I actually started with the science and talking with Ken and others at the lab about what scientifically were the most interesting cases from their perspective. I also was trying to look for cases that featured different parts of the lab - so pathology, morphology, chemistry - and also cases that had different outcomes. Because really what's powerful about the science is that the science is neutral. And you analyze the evidence, and it doesn't really matter what the outcome is. The evidence is the evidence.

And I think that I wanted to show that by having - also selecting cases where the outcomes could be quite different.

FLATOW: Give me an example of your favorite case.

Dr. NEME: There was a case involving hundreds of headless walrus washing up on the beaches of northwest Alaska. And what's interesting is that the legal question here was not whether it was a protected species or not, or even who did it - to match a suspect to the actual killing - but rather if there was a pattern of illegal hunting.

And the law is such that the Marine Mammal Protection Act allows Native Alaskans to hunt walrus, provided they do so for subsistence and not in a wasteful manner. And taking just the tusks may or may not be illegal. You know, the walrus could be lost during a hunt, or perhaps it died naturally and then washed ashore, and then the tusks would be the only thing that could be salvaged.

So taking them wouldn't be illegal. Or else the weather might have turned while hunters were on the ice, and they took the quickest thing that they could so that the whole hunt wouldn't be lost, and that wouldn't be illegal, either. But here the lab was asked to see if someone shot the walrus, solely for their tusks and didn't attempt to retrieve anything else but that they could have - and that would've been a crime. And so the lab was called in, in essence, to discern the intent of the hunters.

FLATOW: And was there, like, a break in the case at some point that just helped you solve the case?

Dr. NEME: Well, it took years of investigation, going back and forth, and a lot of trial and error to figure out what you could tell from a walrus carcass. You know, they started by doing necropsies, which are animal autopsies, on the beaches, but just getting to the carcasses was tricky.

So the walrus had washed ashore over hundreds of remote miles of rocky beach, and they had to fly in, and under the best of circumstances, the beach landings were difficult. The surface would change from day to day. So you didn't know what to expect.

One day, it might have small undulations and the next what they call whoop-de-dos, which are two- to three-foot crests and troughs in the gravel, and as I tell in "Animal Investigators," in the first year of the investigation, they were only able to examine six out of 61 dead walrus. Plus, the necropsies didn't provide the information they'd hoped. So they needed to find another way.

FLATOW: Ken, you were involved in that case, were you not?

Mr. GODDARD: Yes I was. It was probably one of the more interesting crime-scene investigations I'd done. One: because, as Laurel explained, it was difficult to get there to reach the walruses. The landings were interesting. We actually lost a plane. It crashed. Nobody got hurt, but we had to wade across an Arctic stream to get to our survival gear and crime-scene gear.

So this had a little extra excitement to the whole thing. Plus, the Native Americans were watching us offshore with scoped rifles, which (unintelligible) element.

CONAN: Wow, that makes you a little nervous. Yeah, did you in fact ever find out who was killing the walruses?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, we were able to show what had happened. The proposal was that the Native Americans had illegally taken them just for their heads. When they were questioned, they said no, it wasn't us. The Russian MIGs offshore were using the walruses for target practice, and they washed ashore all shot up and all decomposed, and therefore it wasn't a violation of the subsistence hunting just to take the ivory.

So we had to go in there and try to figure it out, and it turned out the neck bones were the clue. When the heads were taken off of the walruses - that's in fact what did happen on the ice flows. The Native Americans were using their hunting rifles to kill them, and they cut the heads off and pushed the carcasses overboard.

The neck bones were exposed to saltwater for about 30 days while they were down below, and it ultimately floated back up and washed ashore and baked in the sun for a couple of weeks until we showed up and cut them open.

FLATOW: Hmm. And did you confront the, as they say in the movie, the perpetrators?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, see, this is one of the issue of "CSI" that they really get wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODDARD: And it's partly my fault. I've been an adviser to the show for a while but…

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Mr. GODDARD: …we tell them that they get it wrong. CSIs don't confront. We don't interrogate. We don't chase after the suspects. That's pretty much the last person we ever want to see at a crime scene. We allow the agents to do that sort of thing.

FLATOW: And so, what was the outcome when the agents did it?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, they confronted the elders, the group. Ultimately, I guess, in fact, Ed and I did confront in the sense that we went up to the walrus commission meeting at Point Hope four years later and presented our findings to the walrus commission. And ultimately, as we walked our way through the process, they start nodding their heads and said, yes, okay, well, we knew that was what was happening but we didn't know if you guys could tell.


Mr. GODDARD: And to some extent, at least for a while, it resolved the situation.

FLATOW: I imagine your job must be much more difficult than regular human CSI people.

Mr. GODDARD: It's a - there's a lot of differences to it. I spent my first years out in the desert of San Bernardino, digging up bodies and running the grave through a sieve. So, it wasn't like I wasn't…


Mr. GODDAR: …used to that kind of thing. But the animal twists are far more fascinating.

FLATOW: And you can't ask the brother or relative, a sister or whatever, when did you last see that animal?

Mr. GODDAR: Yeah, that's a problem for the detectives, the investigator. Generally, they'll have stories, you know, that they'll either try to prove or disprove. And the CSIs will be collecting evidence and get it to a laboratory to help either verify or disprove the story. Well, in the wildlife violations, you have dead animals, and if they're alive they're not talking in a real sense.

FLATOW: At what point do you get called in on the case?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, generally, evidence is sent to us. It's fairly rare that we would go out to a crime scene mostly because there's relatively few of us. There's 24 scientists in our lab, and we're far more effective, you know, being here at the lab with our instrumentation, working the evidence than, you know, being gone for several days out in the field.

So, we put a lot of effort into training our agents, game wardens, and even - well, out in Africa, we were training African rangers on how to work animal crime scenes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about animal investigators on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Laurel Neme, who is the author of "Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species." Also, Ken Goddard, who is director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. How long has the lab in existence?

Mr. GODDARD: We started building the lab in 1986. We started hiring in '88, and worked our first case in 1989. So, about 20 years.

FLATOW: Huh. Interesting. Let's get some calls from our listeners. Ken in Kelso, Washington. Hi, Ken.

KEN (Caller): Hi there. Hi, Ken Goddard.

Mr. GODDARD: Hi, sir.

KEN: Ken, I'd like to find out if you could describe how DNA fits in to wildlife forensics and basically the differences in the techniques that are used and the results in human DNA analysis. And I'll take my call off the air. Thanks.

Mr. GODDARD: Sure. DNA is really one of the more powerful tools we have. Originally, we were using it to try to identify species. Now that we have some other techniques, hemoglobin analysis, we use DNA to individualize, to match, let's say, a gut pile at a kill site to a head on a wall, meat in a freezer, blood on the car, airplane clothing.

And we also use DNA techniques where there is no blood, I guess, to identify species. An example being caviar, where we have to examine caviar shipments to see if the type of sturgeon roe in the shipment matches the permit. So, we use - we have six scientists working DNA analysis in our laboratory, and they're kept very busy.

FLATOW: So, you use DNA in the caviar.

Mr. GODDARD: Sure, that's our way of distinguishing the 27 species of sturgeon and one of paddlefish.

FLATOW: Wow. I would never have thought about - that's why you sit there and I sit here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODDARD: We didn't know about it either when we were first - it was first proposed to us.


Mr. GODDARD: We were told that CITES, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, was getting ready to list the sturgeon and were we ready to make the identifications? And we weren't. So, we had a pretty rapid research process on our hands.

FLATOW: Dr. Neme, what do you find most fascinating about this work?

Dr. NEME: Well, I think it goes - it's fascinating because of the CSI aspect, but it's also fascinating what it can do for wildlife trafficking and conservation more generally.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. NEME: And I think, you know, you take - one of the - you take DNA and one of the things that's interesting about DNA is that it can also identify when a animal is captive-bred versus wild-caught. And there's a loophole in the law that allows people to own and possess captive-bred animals like birds, pet birds or reptiles. And if you have the parents, you can figure out whether the offspring is captive-bred and, therefore, legal, whereas…


Dr. NEME: …it can be used to help prevent wild-caught species from getting into the legal market.

FLATOW: So you can trace back where the bird may have originated from?

Dr. NEME: Correct, if you have the parents. I think one of the issues with DNA is that it's very powerful, but you also need something to compare it to.

FLATOW: I see.

Dr. NEME: And for that, I think the lab needs a very robust collection of reference specimens and it depends on…


Dr. NEME: …what the species is as to whether it has that. Like, for instance, for reptiles, it's very difficult because the lab currently, its database has 100 amphibian and reptile species, but there are over 8,700 species of reptiles that it could possibly have. So that's one of the limitations.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's something - you got to get your library bigger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODDARD: Laurel was actually explaining another CSI response we did where we went out and took blood from several hundred macaws. And it ended up to be a pretty bloody adventure on our part. We ended up deafened and pretty much torn apart by these birds. We were trying very hard not to hurt them, but they fought back.

FLATOW: I think some TV producer must be listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Stay with us. We have to take a short break. We'll come back and talk a lots more about the CSI with Ken Goddard and Laurel Neme, author of "Animal Investigators." Also, bring on another guest who's - who'll talk - who is a special agent, so he'll tell us about some stories he has. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY at NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Daniel Fisher, professor of geological sciences and curator of the Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Also, Laurel Neme, author of the book "Animal Investigations." And talking about the wildlife forensic lab, joining us now is Sal Amato, a special agent in charge of the Northeast region for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement in Hadley, Massachusetts. Welcome to the show, Mr. Amato.

Mr. SAL AMATO (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement): Thank you. Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon. I understand that you went undercover as a special agent a few years ago having to deal with abalone poaching. Is that right?

Mr. AMATO: Yes, actually. But my time when I was working abalone poachers was actually when I was working with the state of California. Prior to coming on with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I was a game warden out in California. And I did some of my time with their special operations unit, went undercover, did some work with them on - in the central coast trying to tackle a problem that the state was having with abalone poachers.

FLATOW: Hah. So you had - what kind of experience do you need for that kind of work?

Mr. AMATO: Well, in a lot of ways, it's trial by fire. You learn on the job. Hopefully we did. In California, we had a cadre of some pretty senior officers that had some experience and could pass that on to the younger guys. But - and that's really how that type of thing goes. You're learning how to, you know, there is some, you know, formal training you can go to, but a lot of what you learn to be an effective covert officer is just on the job and trying to…


Mr. AMATO: …find creative ways to fit in.

FLATOW: Do you have to set up a sting like you do with people?

Mr. AMATO: It depends on what part of the trade you're trying to, you know, tackle, whether it's the actual poacher, you know, taking the animal or you're trying to tackle the, you know, the stores or the wholesalers that are moving, you know, causing the demand and moving the product. So, it really depends.

And, you know, frankly, some of the most successful operations tackle the whole trade from, you know, the people that are involved in the take to the people that are involved in the transportation, and then again…


Mr. AMATO: …the companies or people that are involved in causing the demands in the beginning.

FLATOW: You cover a lot of territory, the whole Northeast.

Mr. AMATO: I do. We have agents and wildlife inspectors spread throughout 13 states in the Northeast, and we're spread pretty thin. You know, we only have about 35 special agents to cover that area and less than that inspectors.

FLATOW: And what kind of cases would you have going on at the same time there?

Mr. AMATO: It's a unique part of our job is that you really never know what you're going to get involved in, especially when you throw in, you know, the largest wildlife park in the nation in New York. We can get involved in quite a bit with international trade, everything from ivory to, you know, rhino horns, some live reptile trade. Our investigators get involved in, you know, trying to protect critical habitat for endangered species in the Northeast.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. AMATO: It really varies. We get involved in so much, and that's why this job is never dull because you never know what you're going to be dealing with.

FLATOW: We always hear about exotic birds escaping from JFK or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMATO: You know, we try to make sure that that doesn't happen. But exotic birds do come in and out of there quite a bit. Some of that is completely lawful if done with the right permits and under the right circumstances. But obviously, some of it comes in hair curlers and smuggled, and we try to address that and curb it to the best extent we can.

FLATOW: Also with me is Ken Goddard, director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab, and Laurel Neme, who is author of the book "Animal Investigators." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Some interesting phone calls. Let's go to Carol(ph) in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Hi, Carol.

CAROL (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

CAROL: In Indian country here, there's a huge black market in bald eagle feathers. A couple of years ago, NPR did a one-line story, and I never heard anything else about it, about a hiker in British Columbia who had found 40 dead remains of bald eagles there.

And when I mentioned it to one of the tribal people I know, he laughed and he said, well, come to a - come to any powwow and you can probably see where those feathers wound up. So, is it - what do you do? How do you penetrate something that has that cache of cultural purity?

FLATOW: Interesting question. Let me ask Sal. Do you have any suggestions for that?

Mr. AMATO: Well, that is a very complex and frankly controversial topic. You know, we are juggling the rights of Native Americans to practice their religion, and their religion may involve the use of migratory bird and eagle feathers.

Dr. NEME: Religion, huh?

Mr. AMATO: We're also balancing that - you know, that doesn't include the commercialization of those types of things. And when people get involved with the sale of them, we try to, you know, take on that challenge.

It is a challenge. It's one that we are - we actively work. You know, it's more prevalent in certain parts of the country where, you know, frankly these powwows and these - the Native American get-togethers are more prevalent than in the Northeast. But it is an issue. It's a complex issue for us, but it's one that we do try to take on.

FLATOW: Laurel, any comments on that?

Dr. NEME: Yeah. I mean, this issue of a lot of times the law lets Native Americans or indigenous people have special rights. And oftentimes, that special right is exploited by traffickers. Animal investigators tell the story about how U.S. collectors of feathered artifacts ultimately spurred a huge trafficking ring in Brazil. And basically, that trafficking ring in Brazil met foreign demand by making grocery lists of animal parts and then hiring poachers to go ahead and fill them.

And then they'd collect these parts and make these so-called genuine artifacts. And it still goes on today. And really, collectors of reptiles, of birds, of feathers, they always want more. They want it bigger, better and rarer. And they'll overlook the source in order to possess the object.

FLATOW: A Tweet came in from TBowShop(ph), who writes, is there a botanical equivalent of crime forensics to go along with the human and animal?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, there is ginseng. That certainly is something that agents like Sal would investigate and possibly send to us to identify, you know, is it a protected species or not. At some point, we may get into wood smuggling. The lumber industry coming out of South America, there is lot of different possibilities.

FLATOW: Could there be anything in orchids? Smuggling orchids or something like that?

Mr. GODDARD: I'll defer to Sal on that one.


Mr. AMATO: Yeah. We have worked - successfully investigated and prosecuted some illegally traded orchids in the past. They do present challenges. Our lab isn't completely set up to deal with all the plant issues that may be out there. But we, I'm sure it's been mentioned, we try to, you know, increase the capability of what the lab can do for us and take on those types of issues.

FLATOW: Jane(ph) in Corvallis, Oregon. Hi, Jane.

JANE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for letting me call in.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

JANE: Well, I am director for Oregon Cougar Action Team. It's a brand new not-for-profit here, new organ. It's an educational foundation, whereas I go in to schools and give PowerPoint presentations telling people about cougar and how to coexist fear-free with them in order to teach people to deal with their differences, both as animals and humans, in a more constructive way.

Currently, in Oregon, they are trying to reintroduce hound hunting with cougar. And in the process of this, I've seen some what I would consider unethical practices in order to create a false hysteria and a false concern that we have a cougar issue here in Oregon. In one of my presentations last year in Silverton, Oregon…

FLATOW: Wait, Jane, I got to ask you, is there a question here?

JANE: There is.

FLATOW: I have to get…

JANE: It's kind of hard to talk about the…

FLATOW: We have to get to it because we're running out of time here.

JANE: Okay. Well, I am concerned that there is a traffic issue of cougar parts here in Oregon as well as cubs that are being used to exploit an issue of having a cougar trauma issue. We've got a young cougar running around - running around Corvallis that appears to be planted here, domesticated, and unfamiliar with how to care for itself in the wilderness. At the same time, we have a potential of a House bill coming through…

FLATOW: Jane, I'm going to have to cut off because I got to go to another call because I need a question related there. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Jason(ph) in Syracuse. Hi, Jason.

JASON (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JASON: My question, I can't help but thinking about "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" when I hear this conversation, the movie. And I was wondering if you guys ever deal with cases that involve maybe missing animals, like, missing exotic animals as opposed to just dead animals? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.

FLATOW: Do you get called that, Sal, anytime?

Mr. AMATO: Missing animals? No, I can't say that I've ever heard of a case like that. You know, occasionally, some of the animals that we do deal with are so rare, you know, the sphinx macaw that we dealt with not too long ago that - I'm going to misquote, it was one of only 12 left in the wild. So the Brazilian authorities were very interested in the whereabouts of that bird, and we ended up repatriating that bird to Brazil.

So sometimes you can get involved in a case where, whether it's a missing animal or not, you know, it obviously means a great deal to the sustainability and continuation of that species. And we, you know, we got that bird back to Brazil, and hopefully a good outcome there.

Mr. GODDARD: Ira, one thing that we're trying to do with the laboratory, hopefully to make Sal's job easier, is called stable isotopes. If we can get this worked out, we're going to be able to tell Sal and his agents where an animal was born, where it was raised, based on the stable isotopes that came up from the soils, into the grasses, into the food supply.

FLATOW: Wow. That's quite interesting. Do you get involved in any species preservation at all?



Mr. GODDARD: We tend to just work the evidence. We don't engage with the habitat other than just sort of violation of wildlife law.

Mr. AMATO: We do get involved in protection of habitat or - you know, we look at our role in enforcing the Endangered Species Act. It, you know, goes a long way towards preservation of species and helps with those plans to recover endangered species.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go Ed(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Ed.

ED (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

ED: In some jurisdictions, a criminalist is a sworn officer rather than a civilian employee of the police department. In a situation like that, wouldn't the criminalist have the authority to confront a suspect in a criminal situation?

Mr. GODDARD: Crime scene investigators as opposed to - criminalist is a title for a scientist in the laboratory. Ideally, we don't have to be armed in the lab. Crime scene investigators often are armed for their own protection, not to make arrests, not to deliberately engage with the bad guy.

Ideally, there - you got officers around to protect the crime scenes. And that's the way we work here in the Fish and Wildlife Service. If I were to go out to a scene, Sal and some of his agents would be there to keep things quiet and peaceful.

FLATOW: Well, let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking about crime scene investigation for animals, which tells me, Laurel, that this is still a really big business, big trafficking problem.

Dr. NEME: It's a huge business. And that's because the animals are so profitable. And what's interesting is that it's not just the poaching but really the demand side that's important because some of these animals are worth more than cocaine, more than, you know, drugs.

A woman just a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles was arrested with a kilo, that's 2.2 pounds, of bear bile with a street value of about $40,000. And that's more than cocaine, which is about 30,000. And rhino horn is worth even more, which about 50,000 per kilo.

And what that's done is that's gotten almost everybody to get in on the game. So depending on the species, you have a lot of organized crime networks getting involved and using the same networks that they might use for drug trafficking, for wildlife trafficking.

And in fact, again, a couple of weeks ago, there was a human trafficking case in Brazil, and that led over time to the wildlife - the biggest wildlife trafficking ring bust ever in Brazil, which was trafficking macaws. And there were over 100 people arrested for illegally smuggling $20 million worth of animals per year, and trafficking about half a million animals per year.

FLATOW: Wow. Let me get a question in, if I can, from Alice(ph) in South Bend. Hi, Alice. Quickly, please.

ALICE (Caller): Hi. I was just wondering, if was interested in to going to this field, what course of study should I take or schools that would be good?

Mr. GODDARD: If you want to get into the science, just good basic biology, chemistry, get your bachelor's degree. Wildlife forensic science is basically learned on the job. Sal can address the investigator part.

Mr. AMATO: Yeah. We, you know, we look for people that are grounded in biology and certainly have a passion for, you know, wildlife and conservation. You know, we do take people from schools that are, you know, studying criminal justice as well. So, really, you know, we need a kind of a mix of both, somebody who's got the law enforcement mentality but also has a passion for wildlife. So we're looking for a mix in our staffing.

FLATOW: Do you have job openings?

Mr. AMATO: Yes. We - just with turnover, we have to almost consistently, you know, keep hiring to keep up with our retirees. And we look to put a class - we, usually, we put a class on of about 24 agents every other year.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the most important, the most - the biggest skill you need is what?

Mr. AMATO: Well, you know, frankly, we are - we don't really hire entry-level. We're looking for journeyman level, investigators that come from other agencies or, you know, come from our own ranks as wildlife inspectors or refuge officers or state officers. So, we look for somebody that's normally had, you know, between three and five years experience doing this type of work.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you can retrain them just to be another kind of specialist from what they used to be.

Mr. AMATO: Exactly.

FLATOW: But they need some investigation experience?

Mr. AMATO: Right.

FLATOW: All right. It's quite fascinating. I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. GODDARD: Glad to.

Mr. AMATO: Glad to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Dr. NEME: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Good luck on your book. Laurel Neme is author of the book "Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensic Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species." And Ken Goddard is director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, Oregon. And Sal Amato is special agent in charge of the Northeast region for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That's the Office of Law Enforcement in Hadley. And he's accepting resumes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Have a great weekend. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. AMATO: Take care.

Mr. GODDARD: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Dr. NEME: Thank you.

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