Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Real Heroes

Scallion, one of 25 animals rescued by PSPCA officers (photo by PSPCA)

April is Prevention of Cruelty to Animals month. In honor of this I’m posting a link to the TV show Inside Edition’s recent coverage of the Pennsylvania SPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement officers in action, and their discovery of a hoarder who kept animals trapped in abandoned cars in horrific conditions. It was only due to the diligence and hard work of these officers that many of the animals survived. Watch the video here:

PSPCA humane law enforcement officers save 25 animals

You can also read the article on PSPCA’s website: 

Please note, these officers are paid solely by donations – they receive NO state or city funding! Without their work all of the animals in this case, and the thousands of cases like it in the course of a year, would never make it. Click here to donate.

Every month should be Prevention of Cruelty to Animals month. For humane law enforcement officers across the country, it is. My experiences with them over the last year, the lessons they’ve taught me, the knowledge they’ve shared with me, are why I consider them an inspiration. The nightmarish things they encounter day in and day out would force many people to turn away. Yet they get up every day to continue the fight. I encourage all of you to help in any way you can. Foster. Adopt. Donate. Volunteer. And remember the ones who speak for those who can’t. We Are Their Voice.

Thanks guys, for being heroes.

A Fragile and Declining Beauty

Phalaenopsis Moth Orchid

Few people think of orchids when they hear of wildlife poaching, but it is a real and all-too-common aspect of a frightening crime. I first stumbled upon this phenomenon years ago, when the movie Adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage, was released. It was loosely based on the fantastic book by Susan Orlean called The Orchid Thief, which depicts the real-life investigation and subsequent arrest of orchid smuggler John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve area of Florida. Orlean’s book went into a lot of detail about the orchid trade. Endangered species of orchids are protected under the 1973 established Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), as well as the Endangered Species Act in the US. As usual, when there are restrictions but still demands, a black market will flourish. People venture to the areas of earth where the endangered orchids struggle to maintain their populations, most often Asia, South America, Africa, and regions of the tropical US (Florida & Hawaii), rip them from their natural homes, and ship or transport them to buyers often willing to pay thousands of dollars. Not unlike the purveyors of ivory.

The endangered Ghost Orchid, subject of Orlean's book

An interesting article on orchid smuggling from 2010 can be found here:

Commercial trade in orchids not considered in danger of disappearing is legal. So is the sale of nursery-propogated species. But as anyone who has fallen under the spell of these magical plants can tell you, sometimes you can’t help but want what you can’t have – the plants sold in Home Depot don’t have the same appeal as a rare, exotic species to an avid collector. Plus, nursery orchids can be expensive and take long periods of time to grow; smugglers often undercut the prices of legitimate growers.

No plant genus or species could hope to illustrate Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection better than orchids. Defying simple description, these fascinating flowers are beautiful, hideous, freakish, arresting, and mysterious. The Orchidaceae is an enormous family of approximately 730 genera and 25,000 species scattered throughout the globe. It is unknown how many species may have existed at one time but are now extinct, and there currently may well be close to 100,000 more hybrid varieties created by cross-breeding different species (Leroy-Terquem, et al, 9). They range in size from microscopic to enormous plants with flowers stretching to over one foot in diameter. There are some that resemble faces: old men with fu Manchu moustaches, shriveled elderly women, and young children with expressions caught in a permanent state of surprise. Others look like dark, cloaked vampires, fangs curled and poised to bite; there is even a genus aptly named Dracula, which looks remarkably like the frightening mythological persona, complete with that familiar sinister expression.  

Dracula gigas (photo by Mauro Rosim)

Animal-like creatures come to life in orchids, like lions with an orange mane of petals, or monkeys with arms outstretched, or bright swallowtail butterflies. There are orchids that resemble high-heeled shoes and fluffy hats. Some seem to be monsters frozen forever in a silent scream; others look like tiny spiders or creeping ladybugs. A few species are parasitic in nature but most are epiphytic, anchoring themselves to trees or rocks but obtaining their nutrients from other sources. There are orchids that possess smells reminiscent of lemonade, angel-food cake, and expensive French perfume, while there are others whose smells resemble a garbage heap or in the worst cases, rotting flesh. Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid?

Vanilla orchid (photo by

I’ve had a love affair with orchids for many years, and have had sporadic success with different varieties. But although I admire the rare and exotic, I do so from the pages of books or online. Or purchase from legitimate growers. I’ve often bought the sad-looking Home Depot orchids because I feel sorry for them and want to give them a better home, and guess what? They grew just fine. Please don’t support the exotic pet or plant trade. Leave them where they are supposed to be so that they don’t disappear forever.

Paphiopedilum from my own collection 🙂

The FBI Needs YOU!

Are you a puzzle enthusiast? Like anagrams or cryptograms? Think you’ve got what it takes to crack a code? If you’re like my grandmother you complete the NY Times crossword AND the cryptogram in an hour. In PEN. If you’re like me, you love puzzles but that same crossword will sit on your desk, filled with erased PENCIL marks, and stare at you for an entire week, taunting and mocking with empty blocks, until the following Sunday when the answers come out. No joke – it’s sitting here right now.

If you love puzzles like me, the FBI is looking for your help!

Last week I received an email from the FBI (I am subscribed and receive updates on a few of their cases; you can subscribe too at ) about an open case that they have been working on:

“On June 30, 1999, sheriff’s officers in St. Louis, Missouri discovered the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick. He had been murdered and dumped in a field. The only clues regarding the homicide were two encrypted notes found in the victim’s pants pockets. The more than 30 lines of coded material use a maddening variety of letters, numbers, dashes, and parentheses. McCormick was a high school dropout, but he was able to read and write and was said to be “street smart.” According to members of his family, McCormick had used such encrypted notes since he was a boy, but apparently no one in his family knows how to decipher the codes, and it’s unknown whether anyone besides McCormick could translate his secret language. Investigators believe the notes in McCormick’s pockets were written up to three days before his death.” ( See actual notes above and below.

Here is the link for the case with the actual notes and description:

FBI open case

On the FBI website page are methods that the FBI cryptanalysts (what a great name for a profession) use to crack codes. And there is a link to Part I of the story, as well as a link to a page where you can leave your comments or theories.

I’ve been playing with the notes but it all looks like alphabet soup to me. Without an alphabet. I obviously lack the skills of a cryptanalyst, but who knows, YOU may recognize this code or be able to solve it! And maybe all this practice means that I will attempt the next crossword in PEN.

Correction to “Forensics on the Road”

For you subscribers who weren’t able to access the video’s from the email, I’m sorry!! Please visit the actual site

to view them! Bear with me here. It’s still morning. 🙂

Forensics on the Road

Last fall I took a course called Motor Vehicle Accident Investigation, and it was one of the most fun and informative classes of my grad school career. Every chance he got, our instructor took us out of the classroom to do actual field work. One such afternoon we conducted skid tests, in order to practice taking measurements and analyzing evidence.

In the video below, you can see what one such skid test looked like. Yes, that’s me in the passenger seat! It was a BLAST 🙂
What you should note is that my classmates are placing chalk marks at the beginning of the skid at what is called the “erasuremark” – it may seem like there is no skid where they are marking, but if you look closer you can see a faint outline of where the heat produced by the skidding tires hasn’t built up enough yet to lay down sufficient rubber. Measurements need to be taken starting with the beginning of the erasuremark.

In this next video, we explored what happens when a car skids with its wheels turned… (pay no attention to the noise in the background; we were at a police training facility so random gun shots and noise were to be expected)

NO, you cannot turn out of a skid when you’re on a dry road surface, so don’t believe anyone who says they can. And like my professor, Roger, states, note the difference in the appearance of the skid marks: it’s very hard to pick out any tread or marks from the ribs of the tires. All of this gives investigators clues to what happened.

There’s a lot that goes into this besides stretching a measuring tape and laying down evidence cards. There’s actual MATH involved. I hate math. But Roger made this really easy. Suppose you needed to figure out the speed of a vehicle involved in a crash using its skid marks. I will use the example from the skid test in video #1 above. There’s a formula: S (speed) = the square root of 30 (a constant) X “d” (distance in feet) X “f” (drag factor). Bear with me here… I promise it won’t be bad. To get the drag factor, we used an accelerometer in the test car. But it can be obtained mathematically as well (I will spare you the calculations). And what you can’t see in the video is the student with the radar gun sitting off-camera to obtain the speed of the vehicle. The skid measured 81.2 feet. The square root of 30×81.2x.57 (our drag factor) = 37 miles per hour. The radar speed obtained was 35 mph! Pretty close! So if we hadn’t had the radar gun we could have determined speed by basic math! Cool, huh? Yes, I’m a geek. There are also formulas for calculating time, distance, velocity at acceleration, velocity at deceleration, etc., etc. And if you’d like me to explain drag factor and the formula for determining it, I would be happy to. Just know that you are a bigger geek than me, and I think you’re great. 🙂

More vehicle accident forensics to come later.

Huge Illegal Shipment of Elephant Tusks Seized in Thailand

Follow this link to read the article:

Illegal Ivory Seized, April 2011

In 2008, I volunteered with Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) in Namibia, West Africa. We built “elephant-proof” wells for villagers

In front of the well in-progress

and tracked and monitored the local desert elephant herds in the area. On one of our excursions to find a particular herd, we stumbled upon an elephant carcass.

All that remained

Bones bleached by sun and sand

One of the first things I noticed was the lack of tusks. They were nowhere to be found. One of our local guides told us that the elephant had most likely died of old age, and that officials from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism had taken the tusks for safekeeping, so that they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Although poaching is not a huge problem in that area, in 2007, the African governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were granted permission to pursue a one-off sale of their stock-piled ivory, 18 years after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the ivory trade. The money would be used by the countries in various ways, including funding for conservation efforts. However, opposers felt that this would only increase the rates of illegal poaching, and some countries, including Kenya, condemned the sales. One year later, standing over the remains of one of Namibia’s greatest tourism assets, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what had happened to that elephant, and where the tusks had gone. What had her life been like? Where was her family? Had they mourned her passing? Had she died a “natural” death, or did she fall victim to poachers?

It sickens me to think that in 2011 there are still those who value a carved ivory statue over the life that provided it. That there are individuals willing to spend thousands of dollars (and in some cases, much more) for a dust-collector that they can display in their homes, with no regard for the animal whose life was taken so that the person could have it. But I am heartened by increased investigatory efforts, and by each and every confiscation of illegal ivory and subsequent prosecution of the people responsible. Each one is a victory in the war on wildlife. My hope is that it will continue… each one sends a message: we will not tolerate this senseless killing and lack of respect for wildlife.

ASPCA’s Groundbreaking DNA News – March, 2011

This is unprecedented… two humane law enforcement cases have resulted in felony convictions based on DNA evidence. I’m so excited I can barely write this, so here is the link to the article on the ASPCA site:

DNA Evidence Revolutionizes Cruelty Cases in NYC

I was priveleged to hear Dr. Robert Reisman, the ASPCA medical coordinator quoted in the article, speak at last year’s veterinary forensics conference . He has been doing some phenomenal research with graduate students in New York that will certainly add to this emerging science. And although there is already an established canine DNA database (Canine CODIS), these two cases make it even more apparent that DNA can be used to solve not only human crimes, but crimes against animals too.

How great is this? Just one more step towards making the laws established to protect animals even stronger.
Keep up the good work!

photo courtesy of