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Ivory Crush 2015

I am so incredibly angry and disappointed in myself for not making it to this monumental event today. I should be there – to watch one ton of elephant ivory, trinkets and carvings be crushed and pulverized, to take a stand for elephant poaching, and to give myself a bit of piece of mind that I would be watching some of the very same pieces of ivory I saw in store windows in my hometown smashed to smithereens.

But, I’m not there. I am an idiot. I can only hope that there will be thousands of others there instead, to do the right thing and lend their support. You can watch it on a webcam: http://original.livestream.com/usfws

And you can read about it here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150618-times-square-ivory-crush-elephants-poaching-conservation/

or here: http://www.newsweek.com/government-crush-1-ton-ivory-times-square-343155

I truly hope this raises awareness and sends a message.

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Protecting Our Oceans

Last Friday was World Oceans Day. I have always loved the ocean, and was fortunate enough to live at the beaches of southern Delaware a few years ago where I could surf, fish, and take my dog for a swim in the ocean and bay any time I wished. To me, the ocean is symbolic and awe-inspiring, capable of evoking unbridled happiness and intense fear. She commands constant respect; take her for granted for only a second and she will furiously slap you back into submission.

But the world’s oceans are rapidly being depleted of the species that make them what they are. Poachers are snatching coral, rays, and aquatic species of all kinds at an unsustainable rate. Perhaps the worst are the shark poachers, who typically catch sharks, cut off their dorsal fins, and toss them carelessly back into the ocean to die. One Washington Post article states that  “reef sharks in the Pacific have declined more than 90 percent in recent decades”.

Recently, several shark poachers were caught off the coast of Indonesia among a group of islands known as Raja Ampat, a marine protected area (MPA) and a place I have long wanted to visit – it may be one of the most beautiful areas on earth.

Raja Ampat – Indonesia (Photo by Scuba-Libre-Bali.com)

Part of the Bird’s Head Seascape, it is an area that naturally boasts sea turtle nesting, colorful coral, shark and ray breeding grounds, and a multitude of species not seen anywhere else. It is protected by proud, trained villagers working on patrols with local police dedicated to maintaining it’s diversity. A Conservation International (CI) article says:

“Despite its global importance, the area was previously a hotbed of illegal activities such as dynamite fishing and shark finning from outside fishermen. However, in 2006 the local Kawe tribal leaders decided enough was enough. With support from CI, they declared a 155,000-hectare (383,000-acre) MPA in a bottom-up process that included a declaration both by the Papuan traditional Adat council as well as the Raja Ampat government. This was eventually followed by a national declaration affording it the highest level of protection for any MPA in Papua. The Kawe communities took it one step further, declaring over 97.5 percent of the MPA as a “no-take zone” through a traditional Papuan sasi declaration, meaning that no fishing of any kind is allowed within this area. With this declaration they made the Kawe MPA into the single largest no-take zone in all of the Coral Triangle, a region stretching from Indonesia to the Philippines and the Solomon Islands. In addition, in 2011 the area was additionally protected under the Raja Ampat shark sanctuary decree, which forbids any shark and ray fishing anywhere in Raja Ampat,” (http://blog.conservation.org/2012/05/shark-poachers-chased-down-by-indonesian-communities-police/).

Poachers with their catch. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

Unfortunately, as is the case everywhere, some choose to disregard the regulations. In this poaching case, seven boats of fishermen were rounded up for illegal fishing after they tried to evade capture. Long lines and air compressors, gear commonly used in shark fishing, were found on board their vessels. Sharks, still alive but bleeding after being hacked apart, were struggling and dying on the boats. Piles of shark fins, sea cucumbers, and rays were confiscated, and the estimated price of the catch and the gear amounted to approximately 1.5 billion rupiah (about US$ 160,000). The Washington Post states that “sharks are used to make shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, and sea cucumbers are sought by Japanese diners“. This Post article also has a link to an interesting article about shark’s fin soup.

Shark fins. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

The most frustrating thing about this case is that there was not enough man-power to physically capture and prosecute the poachers – it was night and law enforcement had only one boat. Although an official arrest was made and they were ordered to report for processing the next morning, the poachers fled. The government has pledged to pursue them.

The illegal fishermen. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

On a positive note, this shows the willingness of local governments to protect their natural resources from poachers. But in the world’s most remote areas, enforcement of the laws may be difficult if not impossible, due to scarce resources and a lack of personnel. However, it CAN happen… check out this article about Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Park at the tip of the Baja Peninsula  – in just 10 years, the amount of fish in the area has increased more than 460 PERCENT! This amazing feat was achieved solely by strict enforcement of protection laws by locals, and has resulted in not only an incredible recovery of what was once a depleted natural resource area, but in a revenue-generating eco-tourism boom! The article also has a beautiful one minute underwater video of the HOARDES of fish that thrive in the area.

I celebrated World Oceans Day by concentrating on the positive victories. Eliminating poaching CAN be done. Let’s learn from this example and keep pushing. Our oceans depend on it.

Veterinary Forensics Conference, Day 3

Third and last day of the conference. It’s bittersweet at the end of these events. I’m sad to leave a community of colleagues all passionate about the same things, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it and happy that I leave with a brain full of information and new insights. When I’m faced with professional adversity I will try to keep the memories of the good feelings I had at the conference with me.

The morning of the third day a woman from the US War Dogs Association spoke to us about the organization and their efforts to secure medals of honor and memorials for the fallen canine officers. It was very moving. Following this, a pathologist from the medical examiner’s office presented on animals involved in some of the cases she has worked – VERY graphic pictures but equally interesting – did you know that Miami-Dade County experiences the most horse slaughter in the country?

Dr. Randy Lockwood from the ASPCA gave an extremely heart-wrenching talk regarding Phoenix – a dog who was doused in gasoline and set on fire by two brothers in Baltimore. Dr. Lockwood was called to consult on the case. I was in tears as he described the incident – how there was surveillance video of two boys (they were not yet 18-years-old at the time of the incident) kicking a dog who approached them in an alley, then leading the dog somewhere off camera; a few minutes later the video showed the same boys running out of the alley, followed by a dog running, engulfed in flames. A Baltimore police officer on routine patrol had the decency to stop, put out the fire, and take the dog for emergency medical treatment. She called for other officers to come process the scene but NO ONE responded – not for a week. In that time all evidence had been compromised. The gas can was collected, but it had been sitting in the rain for a week. Dog feces was found in an abandoned house the brothers were known to frequent, but samples were not taken to compare to Phoenix, so no connection between the boys and the dog could be established. No one at the hospital where the dog was treated saved the towel she came in with for accelerant testing. No hair samples were collected. The collar on the dog was saved but it was not preserved in a non-reactive metal container that would keep the gasoline from degrading. Interviews with witnesses were futile, as Baltimore has a well-known “stop snitchin'” attitude and an extreme reluctance to cooperate with police. Phoenix was euthanized due to the severity of her injuries after a valiant fight, and the boys were remanded into adult court.

Phoenix

As many people now know, fire-setting and animal abuse have long been established as two major precursors to even more serious crimes and interpersonal violence.  During trial, the lack of sufficient evidence was the downfall of the case. The defense witnesses cast doubt on everything – the video surveillance, the arson evidence… the jury ended up in a deadlock and the defendants were released. They were retried recently and found not guilty. It took only an hour to decide, after almost 20 hours of deliberation at the first trial. News reports said the second jury was visibly disinterested, often seen laughing or even sleeping. There were issues with evidence and testimony being barred. In short, it went horribly wrong. Interestingly, a bit of poetic justice: both boys have been arrested and thrown in jail on other charges since the first trial, including drug possession, burglary, and attempted murder. But, as Dr. Lockwood said, Phoenix did not die in vain: an anti-animal cruelty task force has been established in Baltimore. Billboards have gone up. Awareness has increased. Some good has come of it. But the sickness in the pit of my stomach even as I write this remains strong. This is why I continue to be interested in increasing the knowledge of proper forensic techniques for those involved in animal cruelty cases.

Finally, Diane Balkin spoke again, this time on search and seizure and proper execution of warrants. She told us of an interesting case in which a weapon was found in a trash can that was located right outside a suspect’s house. The trash can was not included in the warrant and so the weapon could not be seized as evidence because of the concept of curtilage, which describes the area immediately surrounding a house including associated structures where a homeowner has a reasonable expectation of privacy. It could have been seized if the warrant included the trash cans, or if the cans had been moved to the curb for pick up, as this would have made them “abandoned” property. Interesting. I love law and should have been an attorney.

Now, it is back home and back to reality. I am sad my time at the conference is over but glad for all of the new information. It is always a comfortable bubble of support at these conferences, but it bursts fairly harshly when I am home and on my own. But let’s see if I can make something happen here.

Thank you so much to IVFSA for all of your hard work and for inspiring me to continue the fight!

Here are some more photos of my time in South Beach – enjoy!

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Massacre

I’ve been reluctant to post on this topic – I’m not at all sure why – other than perhaps I knew that writing about it would make it somehow “real” to me and I just can’t stomach this.

But the truth is, it IS real. Since January, differing accounts have reported that anywhere from 200-400 elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks in Bouba Njdija National Park in Cameroon: http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0314-russo_elephants_cameroon.html. According to a New York Daily News article, “Northern Cameroon’s elephant population represents 80 percent of the total population of savanna elephants in all of Central Africa” and now it is estimated that HALF of the elephants in the area have been killedhttp://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-03-15/news/31198608_1_ivory-sales-tons-of-illegal-ivory-tusks.

This is ONE park in ONE country. The numbers don’t include the increase in poaching seen in other areas across Africa.

An amazingly virulent demand for ivory in China is to blame for the slaughter. Most of the ivory is smuggled into China and Thailand via increasingly sophisticated methods, including using unsuspected routes and even placing secret compartments on the undersides of ships. Poachers arrive on horseback from Sudan and Chad, having already wiped out the elephant populations in Chad. An increasing number of Chinese middlemen moving to Africa are aiding the crisis. Another article describes an additional reason: “In 2008, the ban on ivory sales was lifted to allow for the trade of 108 tons of ivory stocks from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe to China and Japan. The sell-off did dispense with old stocks but it also boosted demand – and worryingly provided an ideal cover for illicit ivory sales” (http://news.sky.com/home/world-news/article/16192133).

Photo courtesy of AFP

So what is being done to fight the killing? Cameroon dispatched troops to combat and track the poachers. And Interpol is carrying out an anti-poaching effort called Operation Worthy, “aimed at stifling the increasing demand in illegal elephant ivory”, and it has seen some success: “several dozen people have been arrested and the agents have recovered what they describe as “significant” amounts of illegal wildlife products – including more than 250kg of raw ivory but also lion and leopard pelts, python and crocodile skins and live birds; the operation has been co-ordinated by Interpol’s Environmental Crime Programme and funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare”, (http://news.sky.com/home/world-news/article/16192133). In the Congo, bloodhounds are being used to track poachers with mixed success rates, but at least it shows a willingness to try new techniques. Read about it here: http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/03/05/10582934-bloodhounds-used-to-sniff-out-people-killing-elephants-for-ivory.

But the sad fact is that the troops sent to protect elephants and other wildlife (including rhinos that are killed for their horns) often find themselves unprepared for poachers who have extensive networks and high-powered weapons, and often end up losing their own lives. The Cameroon troops are losing the battle.

And now a wildfire is burning out of control on Kenya’s highest mountain, Mt. Kenya: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/elephants-wildlife-flee-as-fire-spreads-across-wooded-slopes-of-mount-kenya/2012/03/19/gIQArKojMS_story.html and wildlife (elephants included) are fleeing the flames. It is believed that this was intentionally started by poachers as a distraction.

A very informative article on China’s ivory demand can be found on NPR’s site: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/02/147756651/looking-for-elephant-ivory-try-china. It is my belief that elephant slaughter will not stop or even slow down until the demand diminishes.

It is indescribably sad that this is the reality, and that it is very likely that we may see the end of elephants on this planet. Sooner rather than later.

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 AnimalCSI.com:

https://animalcsi.com/2011/04/03/forensics-on-the-road/

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

Mark Your Calendars for CSI Exhibit!

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Get ready! CSI is coming! I found out about a great new interactive exhibit that’s making its way around the country called CSI: The Experience, based on the TV show. Follow this link for the exhibit’s website:

http://www.csitheexperience.org/
The site is great and gives you a thrilling preview of the exhibit.

In the exhibit you have the opportunity to walk through three different crime scenes, following and collecting, and then examining evidence that you find. You will be guided by cast members from the TV show, along with their real life counterparts (including one whom I’ve met on a few occasions, Dr. Jason Byrd, a forensic entomologist and real life Grissom!) and really, what could be better than studying maggots with Grissom?? The exhibit helps you learn about and collect bloodstain, trace, DNA, fingerprints, and other types of evidence as you walk through the three completely different crime scenes. You will use computers as well as good old standard collection techniques, and the CSI guides will help you make sense of everything. In a briefing room you will meet the creator of the show and find out what inspired it. You will watch as a true forensic investigator shows you the tricks of the trade. And you will be introduced to your supervisor, Gil Grissom (I think I just fainted already). Want to take part in an autopsy with Doc Robbins? Well, guess what? You can poke around in a dead body along side him (well, maybe not a REAL dead body…). Want to check out a toxicology lab with Greg Sanders? You can do that too. Collect trace and footprint evidence with Catherine or Sara? Have fun! Analyze DNA with Nick and Hodges? Yep! You will even be able to visit an evidence lab and an autopsy suite. And when it’s all over and you think you’ve solved the cases, you get to meet with Grissom and find out if you were right.

How cool is that?? Yes, I am a nerd and a huge fan of the show, and I’m not afraid to admit it even though some of my colleagues may be (more about this later). I need to give credit where credit is due, and the show got me interested enough in the science to spawn my graduate career. This exhibit sounds like a ton of fun, and seems great for kids especially. I have no doubt it will be exciting and may even spur some young minds into scientific endeavors. In any case, I can’t wait for this to make its way closer to me. The schedule is as follows:
Jan. 29-May 1, 2011: US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama
May 28-Sept. 5, 2011: Exploration Place, Wichita, Kansas
Oct. 1-Jan. 1, 2012: The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
It just finished up a run at the Rochester, NY Museum and Science Center, and I had been thinking about making the trek up there, braving piles of snow and icy roads just to see it. But then I came to my senses and decided to be patient.

Another great site to check out:
http://forensics.rice.edu/
This is an online game site where you can do similar things – I have been poking around on it and it’s highly educational for kids and just a lot of fun!

Rest assured I will be beating little children out of the way to get my ticket to CSI: The Experience. I mean, really, what beats crime scene investigating with the CSI Las Vegas cast? Maybe I can convince Grissom to marry me.

When Life Kicks You in the Ass

So, it’s funny that two of my last posts, especially the one on January 6th, involved thoughts on my goals for the new year ahead. I was looking forward to a lot of great things. But yesterday, seemingly as a smack back into reality, I was laid off. Slam, went the door in my face.

All that remains of my career for the last 4 years

That sad-looking box of stuff is what I carried out of my company for the last time. It constitutes a huge portion of my life for the past four years. That stuffed elephant stared at me from the top of my computer every day. Those pictures reminded me of family and my dog and of good times. I even have a sports bra stuffed in there from when I would go running on my lunch break. It’s all I have to physically show for many years of a three-hour-per-day commute, many headaches and stress, and much learning and growing. And I haven’t been able to bring myself to empty it yet.

Sounds strange to listen to myself say that overused, cliche statement “I never thought it would happen to me” but I really didn’t. As much as I disliked my job and even said that I sometimes wished this would happen, it really SUCKS when it does. It’s a huge loss – a loss of not only a paycheck and a title, but a loss of confidence, security, and self-respect. A loss of a lot of freedoms and things I took for granted.

I have been rather aimless today as the reality sinks in. I am now an unemployed graduate student. That is my new title. But it’s only temporary, and I realized last night as the phone calls and text messages came in that through it all I was able to leave a legacy, however small. I made some good friends who care and who are sad to see my empty cubicle, or “hamster cage”, as I used to call it. That means the world to me. Over the past few years I have begun to realize the importance of those relationships. They will sustain you when the well seems like it’s run dry.

It’s not the end of the world. End of an era, yes. But not the end of who I am. I even mentioned in my post on January 1 that I was going to attempt to venture into new realms this year. At the time I had no idea this would happen (a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps?) and I had no idea the concept may be forced upon me. But this could prove to be a true turning point. Who knows. For sure it is a learning experience. NEVER take anything for granted. I’m glad that I was somewhat ready in case it happened, although it was still a bit jarring. It’s like I’ve been taught in all of my forensics courses, when you think you’ve found all the evidence, think again. Don’t be over-confident, because just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, i’s dotted and t’s crossed, you can accidentally turn over a chair on your way out the door and find a bullet casing you missed. Okay, maybe a silly analogy, but you get the point. Your great ride can end in a New York minute, and you can find yourself staring at a tiny box that holds the last few years of your life.

Let the new journey begin. This brings about a lot of changes that I wasn’t completely expecting (although I did have a sneaking suspicion it may happen), but it will be okay. Perhaps this wasn’t a giant slap in the face or kick in the ass, but merely a tap on the rump in the direction of a new beginning.

For any of you out there going through a rough time, keep this in mind….

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

Read the rest here.

Onward and upward, my friends.