CSI wildlife: Finding crime clues in forensics

Expert explains how science has offered answers in poaching, cat mutilation cases

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2005

Brad Swanson has a love-hate relationship with forensic crime-solving television programs such as CSI.

"One of my favorite things is it's making it cool to be a scientist," said the assistant biology professor at Central Michigan University.

On the other hand, the show is also creating unrealistic expectations for investigators.

"I don't think they're horrible in the standpoint that they're bad TV, but unfortunately they give people a false impression of what can be done," he said. "At most crime scenes, you won't find the type of forensic evidence that they always find on these TV shows. They always find genetic evidence. They always find that one hair in three acres of shag carpeting. Juries now are so used to seeing this on TV that they're seeing an increase in acquittals."

Swanson, an expert in wildlife forensics, will present "CSI Wildlife: Prosecuting Wildlife Crimes With Forensic Biology" at 7 tonight at the University of Alaska Southeast as part of the school's Sixth Annual Evening at Egan lecture series. Admission is free.

Evening at Egan

What: "CSI Wildlife: Prosecuting Wildlife Crimes with Forensic Biology," presented by Brad Swanson.

When: 7 p.m. tonight.

Where: University of Alaska Southeast Egan Lecture Hall.

Admission: free.

At Central Michigan, in Mount Pleasant, Swanson has established the Applied Technological in Conservation Genetics Laboratory, a wildlife forensics center that specializes in contract work for state, federal and nongovernmental organizations. He has worked on projects for Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Wyoming, Vermont, Utah and Washington state, among other places.

"The tests for wildlife forensics are just as expensive as doing them with people, but the problem is that the crimes themselves are not usually at the same level," Swanson said. "The prosecutor's office is not going to be willing to spend the same amount of money to try and prosecute a poacher who might get a $500 fine and loss of hunting privileges as it would to prosecute a murder case."

Still, the field of wildlife forensics is gaining in popularity, thanks partly to television. And poaching, Swanson said, is the third-largest source of illegal money in the United States behind gun and drug trafficking.

In the fall of 2003, Swanson's work drew the attention of the Bothell (Wash.) Police Department. The city, northeast of Seattle, had a problem with mutilated cats turning up with parts missing and organs removed. An animal rescue organization investigated and concluded a human was culpable. The cuts seemed too sharp and clean to have been inflicted by another animal.

An animal rescue program offered a $5,000 reward for information on the crimes. A high school student, a gothic-style dresser who boasted about torturing cats, was quickly turned in by his friends. Police interrogated him and released him, convinced he wasn't responsible. But animal-rights groups began protesting at the student's school. Police ultimately shipped four of the mutilated cats to Swanson.

Swanson conducted a necropsy on a cat with a hole cut in its side and discovered two canine-type puncture wounds, one through the cat's skull, another under its throat.

"I started looking at more of these cats, and I became convinced that they were all killed by dogs and coyotes," Swanson said. "They told me that Bothell had been going through a drought at the time, and when you have a drought you often see coyotes coming in to hunt in more populated areas. Cats are an easy prey source for them. The internal organs often end up getting eaten by birds - blue jays, crows, ravens, anything like that."

Swanson's findings seemed to hold up. When the drought broke in Bothell, the mutilations stopped, he said.

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