ELEVEN YEARS AGO, U.S. FISH and Wildlife Service undercover agents arrested members of a gang suspected of illegally buying walrus heads from Eskimo hunters in Alaska. In a trailer next to a gang member’s Anchorage house they had found 2,000 pounds of walrus tusks destined for factories where they would be turned into mass-produced “original Eskimo art” for tourists.
But the suspects had a seemingly ironclad defense: In court, their lawyers argued that the walruses had been killed before 1972, the year the federal law protecting ocean mammals went in to effect. Given that there were few tests available at the time to determine an animal’s date of death, the claim would have hobbled the government’s case. That’s where Kenneth Goddard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s sole forensics investigator at the time, stepped in. Working with a criminalist—a criminal evidence expert—at the University of California at Berkeley, Goddard proved that flecks of blood found on the tusks had been spilled more recently than 1972. The government got its convictions.
That victory, plus a “growing dossier of convictions during the past 11 years, has transformed Goddard’s one-man shop into the world’s leading detective agency for crimes against wildlife. Today the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oreg., with an annual budget of $2 million, pits 18 scientist-sleuths against the criminals who kill endangered species and other protected animals. “The people here are creating a brand-new science,” says Goddard, 46, who directs the lab. “There are things going on here that simply aren’t being done anywhere else in the world.”
On a typical day at the lab, one team might be analyzing the ingredients in a batch of “rhino horn” pills sold, mainly to Asian men, as an alleged cure for impotence. (In fact, most batches contain mercury and arsenic rather than rhino.) Other technicians test motor oil taken from a dead bird’s wings in hopes of identifying the polluter. And DNA samples from a slab of venison taken from a freezer can determine whether the meat came from a buck or a doe, thereby helping establish whether a deer was killed legally. “It’s not uncommon to suspect who killed a particular animal,” says Dave McMullen, the service’s assistant regional director for law enforcement and Goddard’s immediate boss. “Now we’ll be able to say that meat came from that animal and that animal alone.”
The lab’s greatest recent success, though, was the discovery two years ago by criminalists Ed Espinoza and Mary-Jacque Mann of a technique for determining the difference between ivory taken from today’s elephants and that recovered from the long-buried remains of mammoths and mastodons. The distinction is important because traders in illegal ivory have escaped prosecution by claiming that their wares are taken from the prehistoric beasts, that are still found preserved in ice in arctic regions of Eurasia and North America. Working with a $250,000 scanning electron microscope and a 25-cent protractor, the researchers found that microscopic lines detectable in cross sections of ivory intersect at different angles on modern tusks and on ancient ones.
Another coup came with the lab’s discovery of a method for identifying bile acids unique to black bears’ gall bladders, which sell illegally in Asia for as much as $4,000 each. Used in traditional cures for a wide variety of ailments, the hear gall bladders are otherwise almost identical to those of pigs, which can be sold legally.
Born and raised in San Diego, the son of a Marine NCO and a housewife, Goddard has been chasing crooks ever since he graduated from the University of California at Riverside with a biochemistry degree. In 1968, at 22, he joined the sheriffs department in Riverside County and discovered his calling. “I loved it,” he says. “By day they taught me forensic science, and by night they took me out on patrol. I realized this is what I really wanted to do.”
From there. Goddard moved on to crime labs in San Bernardino and Huntington Beach, getting his master’s degree in criminalistics from UCLA. At the same time, he launched another career—as a crime-fiction writer. (His fourth and most recent novel, Prey, is about an undercover Fish and wildlife agent who goes after a couple of poachers and stumbles on a government plot to destroy the environmental movement.)
By 1979, though, burned out from police work, Goddard answered a help-wanted ad and became the Fish and Wildlife’s Service’s first chief of forensics. He was astonished to discover that the service had no laboratory and no money to build one. “It never occurred to me that they would hire someone to set up a forensics program and not give them a lab, ” he says, “so I had never asked about it.
For the first eight years, Goddard had to lean heavily on his experience as a cop. “I went out to the field a lot and learned to apply my police stuff to wildlife,” he says. “For the most part, we had to catch people in the act with whole animals because once the animals were broken up into pieces and parts, they were too hard to identify. We’d use fingerprints, footprints, tire tracks, things like that.”
Lobbying to get a laboratory was almost as difficult as doing field-work, but it paid off. Congress funded a lab in 1987, and Southern Oregon State College donated land on its Ashland campus. The facility opened in June 1989, and Goddard began commuting to work from his 20-acre ranch on a mountainside overlooking the town. There, he, his wife, Gena, and their daughter, Michelle, 21, tend two horses, seven cows, three dogs and two cats.
The lab contains a less bucolic menagerie. In a warehouse area Goddard calls his shop of horrors are thousands of items confiscated by wildlife inspectors—everything from alligator shoes to mandolins made from sea-turtle shells. One section is reserved for what Goddard wryly calls “the guy problem”—the many products that are claimed to cure impotence. “It really doesn’t say much for the male of our species,” says Goddard, “that people think they have to take this stuff.”
In the lab itself, research in animal forensics continues. “This is real science-fiction stuff,” says Goddard, who estimates that the lab has worked on more than 1,000 cases. “I used to tell people that within 5 or 10 years we’d be able to match blood found at a kill site to blood on a jacket or a ear. Well, as of six months ago, we’ve been able to do that for white-tailed deer, elk, moose and bear.”
As word of Goddard’s successes has spread, he has been approached with some strange requests. About once a year, someone asks for his help in examining evidence that might prove the existence of bigfoot, the mythical half-man, half-beast of the Pacific Northwest. “We choose not to take it on,” says Goddard. “I don’t see it as a law-enforcement issue.”
MICHAEL J. NEILL
JOAN DeCLARE in Ashland