State forensic specialists probe mysteries of wildlife

While some look at an empty bottle of Jack Daniels with remorse, others see it as temporary storage space for the organs of unknown species.

Pointing to the strange-looking object inside, Senior Wildlife Forensic Specialist Jeff Rodzen says it is a gallbladder- and potential evidence. Confiscated by game wardens, its DNA samples can be the determining factor in a poaching case.

“It’s fairly common in some Asian communities where they consume bear bile as a general elixir health supplement,” he says. “The role in our lab is to determine if it is bear.”

So goes only one case within the Necropsy Room at the California Department of Fish and Game forensics lab in Rancho Cordova. Specializing in performing DNA analysis of blood, hair, and tissue samples found at wildlife crime scenes, Dr. Rodzen and his colleague Erin Merideth conjure the evidence that scientifically links slaughtered animals to their respective poachers.

Aside from earning gloating rights to being the only two “Wildlife Forensic Specialists” in the state, the two also work at the first and only Wildlife Forensics Lab in the state of California, which uses the same equipment and methods of human forensics in California state crime labs, on fish and game.

“I like the challenge of wildlife,” Dr. Rodzen says. “We may get a case with 40 or 50 meat samples and you don’t know what species are there.

In the background, Merideth nods, citing a recent case where confiscated meat turned out to include traces bear meat. “I like these surprising cases,” the UC Davis alum says cheerfully, adding ”I got to use my new bear markers.”

Peering into a huge storage freezer of what looks like a lion tail and deer antlers wrapped in bundles of plastic wrap, I grow uneasy.
Yet, the bulk of carcasses underneath the fluorescent lights aren’t your everyday batch of road kill. Most of the wildlife cases here result from calls to the CALtip poaching hotline by residents suspicious of illegal fish and wildlife activity. If a game warden investigation ensues on the property and finds evidence in dried blood or meat samples, they contact the lab. That’s where Dr. Rodzen steps in.

First, we figure out what species each evidence item is,” he explains. Dr. Rodzen does this by diffusing meat and blood samples onto gel plates and performing tests using antsera, which are an initial indicator of what species or family an unknown sample might belong to.

This process works well with public safety incidents, where wild animals, such as mountain lions, are suspected of attacking humans.  After catching a suspected lion, forensic specialists collect blood spots from its claws and teeth to determine whether it contains human blood. DNA fingerprinting is then used to either match the cat to that victim, or exclude the cat as the attacker.
In fact, Dr. Rodzen had done something similar only a week ago, during an investigation concerning an alleged mountain lion attack on a 50-year old Palo Alto hiker.

“Usually what we do on animal attack is that we examine the victim’s outer garments to see if we can identify anything indicating a lion attacked the person,” Dr. Rodzen says. “So things we’ll look for would be holes in clothing, hairs or saliva from the lion. But in this case, we didn’t see any of that.”  

He recalls that while he worked for several authentic mountain lion attacks, he worked on five times as many unsubstantiated lion attacks. “We’d get clothing where somebody most likely ripped at it themselves and claimed they were attacked by a lion to get attention” Dr. Rodzen says.

Aside from the nuisance of futile threats, which Dr. Rodzen asserts wastes tax payers money through the valuable time, money and investigative resources agencies and police use on that rather than out prosecuting a real crime, the Department of Fish and Games is also experiencing the effects of low pay.

Fish and Game wardens are, after all, the lowest paid law enforcement officers in the state, and the Department often has difficulty recruiting new wardens.

Relating it back to the forensics labs, he adds, “Forensics science is a very powerful law enforcement tool, but is also expensive to conduct. The less money you have to work with, means essentially you can work fewer cases.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Rodzen finds solace in the deterrent effect of DNA typing and forensics methods, as of cases that actually go to court have dropped off substantially since the Department has started using DNA. “A lot of suspects plead guilty in the field to a Fish and Game warden when the wardens say they are going to send all the meat to the lab to figure out what exactly it is. The person will get scared and just admit to it.”

And who exactly are the perpetrators behind these crimes?

“There’s always been poaching, but as general groups of people come in, they tend to target different types of species. For instance, we do a lot of cases with sturgeon poaching, where people of Russian or ex- Soviet Union descent involved, but not always…we have to be careful in saying they’re not profiling anyone.”

Yet, he asserts that most of the cases are simply, “just our good ol boys.” With the circumstances of some economically depressed areas of California, he says, it is common for someone involved in poaching to be involved in all kinds of other things too, like drug offenses or weapons violations. Yet, it is not uncommon for others to say they didn’t know what they were doing was illegal.

“Yeah, that is a common excuse,” Rodzen says. “Of course if the same person or family sometimes gets cited three or four times for the same violation” 

So why should people care that animals are taken illegally?

“Without environmental laws or state enforcement on poaching, we’ll end up like other countries where there is no wildlife left. Look at Africa or India, where their tigers and elephants only exist now on very few areas of protected land. So if future generations of people want to see wildlife anywhere other than a zoo, poaching is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

In the meantime, Dr. Rodzen must isolate himself in paperwork before tending to the headless geese in the freezer. The poor creatures will have to be thawed before any necropsy and x rays can be done to test for bullet fragments.

“I would rather much be in the lab all day than doing administrative stuff,” says Dr. Rodzen. ”I hate paperwork.”

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