Johnnie French doesn’t get to see animals the same way most of us do. As a forensic scientist, he meets the majority post-mortem. Every day, new animals (or their parts) arrive at the lab. Some are customs seizures. Some are donations. Some require autopsies. Some are the victims of terrible crimes, and some will help them get justice.
French works at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Forensics Laboratory, the only full-service wildlife forensics lab in the world. He manages the morphology unit and its large reference collection of about 100,000 animals. French spends his day with over 6,000 unique species of birds, mammals, fish, coral, sharks and reptiles—all preserved in the brand new 15,000-square-foot lab in Ashland, Ore. USFWS started this lab in 1979, but it didn’t receive funding until the 1980s. Since then, it’s gotten exponentially more sophisticated. Before its recent $3.5 million upgrade, the lab was 3,500-square-feet and drafty. Now, the lab has temperature and humidity controls and blocks UV light, to ensure the museum specimens inside stay in perfect condition.
The goal of the Forensics Lab is to help the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement protect threatened and endangered species. Together, they help build cases that prosecute wildlife crimes and the poachers and traffickers who commit them. But first, it starts with the collections.
Like typical crime labs, the Forensics Lab has to compare unknown items that arrive (like a feather or a skull) to known examples already in the lab. When they can’t do that visually (when trying to identify what animal was used for a purse or shoe, for example), the genetics lab uses tissue samples from its reference collection of over 500,000 samples.
“I have a really big wish list of specimens we need for the collection,” said French. Sixty percent of the collection comes from zoo donations. (Everything else was seized at customs.) French works regularly with the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif.; Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill.; Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill.; Cincinnati Zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio; Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Ga.; Zoo Miami in Miami, Fla.; and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y. But he’d like to work with more.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums currently works with Fish and Wildlife on multiple levels, but the Forensics Lab is one of the lesser-known partnerships. The easiest way AZA facilities can contribute is by donating a body to science after an animal dies.
“Really, it’s an opportunity. Outside of the registrar or vets in charge of necropsy, most people don’t know about this as a great alternative to keep that animal’s DNA and tissue samples alive going forward,” said Steve Olson, AZA’s senior vice president of government affairs.
The Wildlife Forensics Lab makes it as easy as possible. It’s as simple as emailing or calling French. The lab covers the costs of shipping and anything else that may come up.
“I try to make things easy because I literally could not do my job without the help of zoos,” he said.
With the variety of animals involved, sometimes relocating them involves creativity. Recently, French helped imagine a wooden shipping crate around a 250-pound Aldabra tortoise that passed away. In December, when San Diego’s longtime resident hippo died, French flew down from Oregon, rented a truck, and drove him back to the lab.
“It’s a strange job to love, but I have the best job in the world,” said French. “After an animal dies, we get the chance to continue the conservation work that zoos do so well. Otherwise, all of that scientific value is gone.”
In addition to morphology, the Wildlife Forensics Lab also has a criminal branch that looks at trace evidence and altered document analysis, and a pathology lab that determines cause of death. When an animal is found dead in the wild, the lab autopsies it to determine whether a crime has been committed. That could involve CT scans, an alternate light source exam, and photographs. They also deal with smuggling. Ivory is still trafficked regularly, so the lab receives confiscated ivory to test and verify under UV lights. French recently worked on a box of 26 elephant trunk tips disguised in kitty litter.
The lab works with 182 countries, any of which can send in an animal to have it analyzed. Before the pandemic, French visited countries in Africa regularly to teach police and park rangers how to investigate a poaching incident like a murder scene. This involves finding, protecting and preserving evidence, which must then be packaged properly. Next, someone has to document the scene and create a map of evidence. If the animal is found, class category analysis (documenting the characteristics that lead to identifying an animal or chemical inside the animal) serves as proof that a law has been broken by proving an animal is of a protected species or that it has a restricted chemical in his blood. Everything must be done in a way that will hold up in court.
It takes years to prosecute wildlife crimes, even the high-profile ones. Five of the tigers from the 2020 documentary Tiger King arrived at the Wildlife Forensics Lab once authorities started to investigate. Pathologists determined cause of death (gunshots) and then the morphology department identified the species. As a result, former animal park owner “Joe Exotic” was found guilty of killing those five tigers (which violated the Endangered Species Act) and falsifying documents related to the sale of wildlife, among other things.
“With human crime, the first step is finding a dead person. Then we ask: ‘Who is this? What’s their name?’ It’s the same for wildlife crime, except we’re not looking for a name but a genus and a species,” said French.
Rachél Watkins Rogers, now retired, worked with the Wildlife Forensics Lab often as registrar at Zoo Miami. In 2001, the zookeeper-turned-registrar took the Institutional Records Keeping course that opened her mind to different aspects of zoological records and data management. She organized a multi-disciplinary meeting, reached out to veterinary departments and worked with curators to encourage collaboration. She admitted that death could be awkward at times, but dealing with an animal’s record in death requires the same stewardship as they received in life.
“It’s very emotional. When the director just got off the phone with a zoo that had to euthanize, it’s a very tender moment. And I’m there saying, ‘Hey can you sign these papers to get approval to donate?’ It’s delicate and time-sensitive,” said Rogers. In her time as registrar, Rogers was also adamant about sending the correct permits and as much data as possible along (whenever an animal moved as well as post-mortem), so that the animal’s entire life can be understood.
“When an animal dies, I want to save everything,” she said. When cleaning out her office, she recently found a sample from her studbook keeper days of a confiscated Cuban Amazon parrot. She was able to offer the sample to the Wildlife Forensics Lab.
It all started with a white-handed gibbon named Fang that Rogers worked with in her previous position of zookeeper. When Fang reached the end of his life, she advocated for samples to be sent to the Wildlife Forensics Lab. The Zoo sent his entire body, and he is now part of the museum collection.
“It was so sad, but I took comfort in the fact that Fang was now fighting wildlife crimes in his afterlife. These animals can become heroes and stand up for other wild animals,” she said.
Zoo Miami sent 14 different pieces of African and Asian elephant tusks in 2021 to help the Wildlife Forensics Lab develop a mitochondrial DNA database to trace matrimonial lineages. Since elephants are matriarchal with a limited home range in the wild, this would help pinpoint the radius of where any confiscated ivory originated. In the past, the Zoo has also sent a tiger tooth, macaw feathers, and tail hairs from various species.
“Modern zoos need to do more than just house and take care of animals in our collection. This is an easy (often low budget) way zoos can participate in conservation of wild species to help fight the illegal animal trade and poaching,” said Joseph T. Svoke, curator of Africa at Zoo Miami. “Zoos are an untapped resource of biomaterial and genetic samples that can serve a greater purpose.”
The lab is not only concerned with exotic animals, however. Instead, it’s more like a human blood bank—prepared for anything that might come up. Wildlife crimes are far-reaching and full of more questions than answers initially, so every piece of information helps.
It’s never easy to lose an animal, but in death, there is life. Working with the Wildlife Forensic Lab’s animal collections offers zoos a way to continue their conservation mission beyond an animal’s lifespan.
Hero image: Johnnie French, a wildlife forensic scientist and the museum collections manager, washes a Galapagos tortoise shell after 22 hours of preparation time. The shell will become part of the morphological reference collection and used to help identify tortoises found in the illegal wildlife and black-market pet trade. During the preparation process, DNA and keratin samples are taken so they can be used by the staff geneticists and chemists in their work as well. Credit: ©USFWS
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.