Running the world's only forensic animal crime lab

How one lab processes wildlife cases for 180 countries

When was the last time you thought of a bird or a tree as a victim of a crime? Or if the leather used in a purse is actually skin from an endangered sea turtle? Or if fish eggs sold as caviar are from a sturgeon or a copycat? At the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory, these are the mysteries a team of geneticists, pathologists, and morphologists specializing in wildlife forensics are tasked to solve.  The lab supports a network of federal agents and inspectors who are trying to protect endangered species and take down wildlife traffickers.

At the helm is Director Ken Goddard, a seasoned CSI investigator who left human police work behind to create this special lab in Ashland, Oregon.  We caught up with Ken to discuss the lab’s early beginnings, why he thinks rhinos are nearing extinction, and what it’s like wading through walrus guts in the Arctic.

Editor’s Note: The following was adapted from an interview with Marita Davison.  It has been edited for length and clarity

Marita Davison, “TechKnow” contributor: What was your background before establishing this wildlife forensics lab?

Ken Goddard, Director, US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory: I spent years out in the Mojave Desert digging up bodies [as a] crime scene investigator, doing the real thing.  Then I became a police crime lab director, doing scientific investigation work for 7 years.  It’s progressively depressing work, seeing kids the same age as my daughter on morgue slabs. Then this offer to set up a crime lab for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came up and it was so intriguing. It was so different. Amazingly, we end up here in Ashland, Oregon with this lovely laboratory that you’ve been wandering through all day.

MD: What would you say was the most challenging part of creating the lab?

KG: The toughest part was convincing our own agents that we needed a crime lab. I gave my first talk to the agents at a training session, and one of our agents, a good old cowboy, leaned back against the wall, took off his hat, raised his hand, and said – “Mr. Goddard, sir, I don’t mean to be impolite, but why do I need a crime lab to count ducks?”… I had two agents advocating for it, about 220 against it. That was the biggest fight.

Lab director Ken Goddard showing Marita Davison the evidence room.

MD: What would you say is the main difference between what you’re doing here at a wildlife lab and what a forensics lab dealing with humans is doing?

KG: After the 10,000th marijuana identification, it’s not exciting anymore. Police forensics is repetitive, much like the crime is repetitive, and the evidence is repetitive. The emotions are there certainly, but the weighing instruments are doing the work. You’re putting in samples, hitting an on button, and watching the computer data come up. Here, we’re trying to figure out how that head became a shahtoosh shawl.

MD: You mentioned emotions. Do you feel that you experience fewer of those? Are they less intense? How do you deal with that here?

KG: There are certainly emotions here, but they are different. We had 200 pelicans that came in from an oil spill. Those draped birds, that’s about as emotional a picture as you could get. To us, they are bodies; we treat every single one like a homicide victim. We determined cause of death. We even matched the oil in the lungs back to the oil spill. We focus on the scientific work. Our job is to speak for the evidence. Don’t take sides, what does the evidence say? That’s what we report to investigators, that’s what we report to the courts. To us, a gold star on the wall should be a successful presentation not a successful prosecution.

We focus on the scientific work. Our job is to speak for the evidence. Don’t take sides, what does the evidence say?

Ken Goddard

Director, US Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab

MD: How many cases come through your doors annually?

KG: It ranges from 2-4,000 and it varies between 15-20,000 items.

MD: Now do you spend any time in the field?

KG: Occasionally. I spent eight days on the Alaska coastline with Dr. Ed Espinoza, a pathologist, two federal agents, and agent pilots.  We landed on the beach, put on bright yellow clothing and cut open a badly decomposed walrus that had been baking in the sun for a couple weeks. The Native Americans watching us offshore with scoped rifles and binoculars probably thought we were crazy people. It was a fascinating investigation. We crashed an airplane, sank a jeep, had to wait naked across the Arctic steam to get our survival gear. It was Keystone Cops, it was so much fun.

MD: I know that crime networks, some organized crime drug traffickers, are starting to get into wildlife trafficking.

KG: Yes, and they’ve been doing it for quite a while in fact.

MD: Is the idea that penalties for getting caught are less severe, and they think that they can get away with that?

KG: The penalties are still not much; they used to be $50 fine for killing an endangered species. It was the cost of doing business. You got caught, you paid your fine. Now we can not only identify the victim based on a piece of evidence, but we can link that suspect to that victim at the crime scene together. All of the sudden the judges are finding them guilty, and the fine is greater. It still may be the cost of doing business, but if you’re talking about $150,000 for a rhino horn, we still take them on. We make their lives difficult.

MD: How do you deal with that, in the case of rhinos in particular?

KG:  Frustration. There’s a dark humored aspect to it. At one point, the decision was made to cut the horns off the rhinos so they wouldn’t be killed. Well, it turned out that the female rhinos weren’t interested in the guys if they didn’t have a horn. I thought that was pretty fun. The South African manager was glaring at me, they had to create fiberglass horns and bolt them on the guys before the girls took an interest again.  The [manager] was the one who had to dart the rhinos they bolted the horns on; he didn’t think it was quite so funny.

MD: So are rhinos headed to extinction?

KG: I don’t see how we stop it; they’re out in open ranges. We could put them in compounds, we can put them in zoos with barricades around, but if that horn is worth $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 – a poacher is going to find a way.

MD: Operation Crash has not been about the poacher, it’s been about the middle man and often times they’re finding specimen items where the rhino’s been long dead. Why is that a problem? 

KG: First of all, we want the trade stopped. We need the public to understand that using rhino horn for any particular medical purpose is foolish. Chew your fingernail if you want to get the effect, its nonsense. But that’s not stopping the rhinos from being killed. We’ve got to stop the middle men and the buyers from collecting these caches of horns and then trying to kill off the rest of the rhinos. One way is going at the middle men, which we did with Operation Crash. A lot of the mounts came off museums. It’s still a rhino horn, but if you take it across the country line, you violated the Lacy Act. And then we have you.

MD: What's the answer to the defendant who says, “Hey, I didn’t do that, that happened years ago?”

KG: True, yes. I didn’t make that pound of cocaine in Bolivia, I just transported it. Well, it’s still illegal. It’s a violation of the law to transport across a country line. 

MD: I would imagine that a lot of people have no idea that they’re committing a crime?

KG: There’s even a belief in China that tusks from an elephant are just pulled like a tooth, and the elephant is fine. The reality is so far from that; the elephants have to be killed. They have to literally chop the tusk out of the skull with an ax. It’s not a tooth removal thing at all. The rhinos are killed occasionally or still alive when they lose their horns. It’s horrific, it’s enraging.

MD: What do you want the public to know about wildlife crime and wildlife trafficking?

KG: People have to understand what danger these creatures are in. Rhinos don’t stand a chance; their horns are worth too much. How do you deal with that? The public is the only real solution, they have to care. 

MD: So tell me what do you see down the road? What do you hope for?

KG: I want more labs like this across the globe. We are by ourselves. I’ve got some incredibly smart and motivated people, but there are so few. There are 15 scientists here divided into 5 professions. We’re supposed to try to work for over 100 countries that have signed the CITES Treaty, but it’s just not doable. We want other countries to create labs like ours so we have more smart hands, more smart brains, people we can link up with, and we’ll share everything we know.

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