Today I awoke to the tragic and for me, incomprehensible, news of the death of my former boss and mentor, George Bengal. It has forced me to confront something I never foresaw or expected, and even when the warnings came, it still never seemed real.
George embodied vitality and energy. He took care of himself religiously, going to the gym and watching what he ate. I used to tease him about the slime-green, hideous-looking drinks he would bring to work, but that was him (that attentiveness to his health is why this was so shocking). He radiated dedication and enthusiasm. I used to hear his voice down the hall from his office, shouting to his officers or laughing about a joke. He was passionate and inspiring. To me, he was larger than life.
I ask myself now, as I’ve asked myself mentally since I first heard of his diagnosis: how do you say goodbye to someone like that? How do you say goodbye to someone who has figured so prominently in your life for so long, been the reason you are where you are and are doing what you are doing, been the source of so much emotion, both good and bad? He and I clashed mightily over numerous issues. There was animosity and frustration, fear and skepticism, and, of course, respect and admiration. In the end, I believe we formed a bond of an indescribable kind – developed from working alongside each other and from learning, not from preconceived notions or second-hand knowledge or gossip. I know that the bad is fleeting and temporary; the good is permanent.
He took a stand for things he felt were right and didn’t back down. That obstinance was a source of animosity for some, and inspiration for others. I put myself in the latter category. He showed me different ways of looking at things and caused me to reconsider preconceived notions. His determination was a source of strength. He faced on a daily basis what most people would turn a blind eye to or refuse to acknowledge. You can read more about George here: http://www.fox29.com/news/145568011-story. There are so many things to say, but I just can’t find the words right now.
Perhaps the best thing is not to ask how to say goodbye. Just say “until later”. Someday I may get to hear your ringtone, “Moves like Jagger” again. And I can say all the things I didn’t get to say. But maybe then none of it will matter anymore. Until later… I will keep up the fight for you. Until later… I will laugh about the fun memories. Until later… I will always think of you as a mentor and friend. An inspiration. A hero.
Until later, George. You will be missed, and my world will be a little dimmer.
Tons of confiscated illegal ivory displayed in February 2014 in Paris. Officials in France crushed the contraband, worth an estimated $1.4 million. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)
This is a great article on wildlife forensics that Weather.com put together. They interviewed me several times (it’s amazing how all of the talking gets whittled down) and the author found me through this blog! This is a huge article with beautiful pictures and quotes by many of the same people I am always “bumping into” (more on this later) and I am really excited about it. Just shows how small this field really is. But the author, Michele Berger, really dove headfirst into the issues and doesn’t shy away from any of the hard facts. Thanks, Michele, for the fantastic article and for including me.
As a huge geek, I love it when novel technological concepts can be applied to conservation crises. Read on for a description of how drones are being used to fight wildlife crime…
Visitors to Kruger National Park wait for a rhino to cross the road. Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America
Article courtesy of Thomas Snitch, visiting professor in advanced computer studies at the University of Maryland.
This article originally appeared in The Conversation.
In 2014, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa for their horns, which end up in Asia as supposed cures for a variety of ailments. An estimated 30,000 African elephants were slaughtered last year for their tusks to be turned into trinkets. The world loses three rhinos a day and an elephant every 15 minutes. Simply stated, this is an unsustainable situation.
Our team at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies has created a new multifaceted approach to combat poaching in Africa and Asia. We devise analytical models of how animals, poachers, and rangers simultaneously move through space and time by combining high resolution satellite imagery with loads of big data—everything from moon phases, to weather, to previous poaching locations, to info from rhinos’ satellite ankle trackers—and then applying our own algorithms. We can predict where the key players are likely to be, so we can get smart about where to deploy rangers to best protect animals and thwart poachers.
The real game changer is our use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which we have been flying in Africa since May 2013. We’ve found that drones, combined with other more established technology tools, can greatly reduce poaching in those areas where rangers on the ground are at the ready to use our data.
In the past 10 years, the poaching of elephants and rhinos has increased exponentially, primarily because it’s a very lucrative criminal business. Rhino horns can fetch more than $500,000 or more than $50,000 per kilogram—more than the cost of any illegal narcotic—and a pair of elephant tusks can reach $125,000. Most of these illegal activities are run by Asian criminal syndicates, and there are well-founded beliefs that some of these proceeds are being funneled to political extremists in Africa.
Technology is a marvelous tool, but it must be the right solution for a particular problem. Engineering solutions that might work with the U.S. military looking for people planting improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan will not necessarily work in the African bush, at night, searching for poachers. The most challenging question about how UAVs are used in Africa is when and where to fly them.
Africa is too big to be simply launching small drones into the night sky with the hope of spotting rhinos or poachers by chance. This is where the analytical models come into play. Based on our models, we know, with near 90 percent certainty, where rhinos are likely to be on a particular night between 6:30 and 8:00, prime time for killings. At the same time, by mathematically recreating the environment when previous poachings have occurred, we have a very good idea of when and where poachers are likely to strike.
We don’t have to find poachers, we just need to know where the rhinos are likely to be.
For example, a large proportion of poachings occur on the days around a full moon; it makes sense since that’s when poachers can easily see their prey. In one area where we have months of experience, we discovered that nearly every poaching occurred within 160 meters of a road. It’s simple. The poachers are driving the perimeter of the park in the late afternoon, spotting animals near the park fence; they return just after sundown, kill the animal, and drive away. We pile on the data, and the algorithms do the rest.
The key is that the satellites, the analytics and math, and the UAVs are integrated into a solutions package. We crunch the data, and the model tells us precisely where we should deploy our rangers on any specific night so they will be in front of the rhinos and can intercept the poachers before they reach the target animal. After all, there’s no value in rangers patrolling parts of the park that these animals are unlikely to ever visit. Consider that South Africa’s Kruger National Park is the size of the state of New Jersey. Like a bank robber who robs banks because that’s where the money is, we want our rangers to be near the rhinos because that’s where the poaching is.
On our first UAV flight in South Africa, the UAV flew to our pre-determined spot and immediately found a female rhino and her calf; they were within 30 meters of a major road. We decided to circle the drone over the rhinos, and within minutes a vehicle stopped at the park’s fence. Three individuals exited the car and began to climb the fence to kill the rhinos. Our rangers had been pre-deployed to the area; they arrested the three poachers in less than three minutes. This episode has been repeated dozens of times over the past 20 months.
The most critical issue is not how far or how long a UAV can fly but how fast a ranger can be moved, in the bush at night, to successfully intercept poachers. The UAVs are simply our eyes in the night sky. Watching their live infrared video streams, we move our rangers as if they were chess pieces. Even with great math, we have some variance, and that means we might be 200 meters off a perfect positioning. The UAVs can see poachers at least 2 kilometers from the rhinos. So we have 45 minutes to move our people into the most optimal position, based on our real-world trials of how quickly they can move through the bush at night.
A forensic team from Kruger National Park gathers evidence at the site of the killing of two rhinos, a male and a female, Dec. 8, 2014. Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America
We’ve had hundreds of night flights with more than 3,000 flight hours in the past 20 months, and here is what we’ve learned. First, on the first few days after we begin operating in a new area, we arrest a number of poachers, and they’re being prosecuted to the fullest extent of local laws.
Second, our models are heuristic in that they are constantly learning and self-correcting, on the lookout for changes in the patterns they’ve identified. This is critical since poachers will try to change their behavior once they learn that they are at an extremely high risk of apprehension. The sheer number of animals being killed shows us that, up until the UAVs take to the air, most poachers have been able to operate with impunity.
The most important finding is that in every area where we have put our solutions package to work and the UAVs are flying, poaching stops with five to seven days. Period—it stops. Tonight we are flying in a very challenging area in southern Africa—we don’t identify our flight operations so as not to alert the poachers—and over the past 90 days, there has not been one single poaching incident. Four months ago, this region was losing several rhinos a week.
The good news is that we have proof of concept and proof on the ground that UAVs can make a tremendous difference. The bad news is that the poachers are moving to regions where we are not operating. To really address the challenges of poaching in the region, all the nations in southern Africa should be willing at least to test our system in their most critically endangered areas.
Our solution to the poaching problem lies in the combination of satellite monitoring, great math, properly positioned rangers, and UAVs flying precise flight paths. It works.
The Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine has announced a new Graduate Certificate Program in Wildlife Forensic Sciences. This program is designed for wildlife conservation officers, fish and game officials, law enforcement officers, forensic investigators, and academic students in wildlife ecology and conservation, although anyone with an interest in these courses can take them.
On completion of the 9-credit certificate program, students will receive a University of Florida Certificate in Wildlife Forensic Sciences. This certificate program is open to appropriately qualified local, national, and international students.
And guess what? It’s my program! I’ve been busy getting the courses together for some time now. I’m very excited that registration is open and that the classes will begin in January… hopefully this is the beginning of some great things. This Thanksgiving, I’m happy for this new opportunity!
In celebration of this holiday, I’d like to share two recent, happy stories from the ASPCA:
The last week in June saw a judge in Florida rule in favor of turing over ownership of 700 cats to local authorities, rather than have them return to the sanctuary where they were housed. Thanks to the court order, they are one step closer to finding good forever homes and will never have to return to the filthy environment they were confiscated from – an overwhelmed “rescue” called Caboodle Ranch that could not (and would not, in some cases) provide the necessary care for the animals housed on site. The judge also “prohibited Caboodle Ranch from acquiring any more animals, ensuring that no more cats fall victim to hoarding there” (aspca.org).
Caboodle Ranch (photo courtesy of animalhoardinginfo.blogspot.com)
Also in June, the ASPCA, along with NYPD Vice Enforcement Division and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, rescued 50 dogs “ranging in age from 12 weeks to five years, found living in the windowless basement of a six-story apartment building in the Bronx. The space, which served as a makeshift dog fighting arena, was littered with crude wooden cages and had the capacity for roughly 100 spectators. Raul Sanchez, the building’s superintendant, was taken into custody and charged with animal fighting, a felony. Also discovered on scene were a loaded .25-caliber handgun, U.S. currency, and other equipment associated with dog fighting—including dog treadmills, harnesses, muzzles, syringes and a shopping cart full of raw chicken parts” (aspca.org)
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.
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!
Have my descriptions of the goings-on at this conference gotten you excited? I hope so!
The rest of day 2 was a whirlwind. There were presentations by students at the University of Florida, one on using craniometric measurements to determine sex in canines, and one on using cellular markers, or RNA, to determine the postmortem interval.
Dog skull (photo by skullsite.co.uk)
Nancy Bradley, a former police officer turned veterinarian, spoke on collecting ballistic evidence; her expertise came after the serial shooter case in Phoenix occurred several years ago. Her emphasis on handling the ballistic evidence from the animals in that case forced law enforcement to see the value of understanding what happened to the animals, because it was directly related to the human side of the investigation. Some of her pointers: collect gun shot residue (GSR) from the body, even if it may be difficult to test due to the distortion from the fur; use trajectory rods to show the path of the bullet after taking radiographs and put the rods through all of the organs affected; ask officers if they want the bullet cleaned or preserved for cytology; and handle any projectiles with your gloved hands or with plastic forceps rather than metal since the lead is surprisingly malleable and any lands and grooves (that would be used to prove/disprove a match could potentially be marred by improper collection methods.
After this was a presentation by Belinda Lewis, a photographer who teaches officers proper photographic techniques. I really learned a lot from her. Some of the tips she shared I already knew from school: when photographing, fill the frame, maximize the depth of field, etc., but she also taught us to use 18% gray scales rather than white when photographing evidence since it can wash out the photo, and to use gray towels under bodies during necropsies for the same reason. In specific cases, look for things that are often overlooked, for example, if a dog is found starved, show that the chain it was tethered with was too short to reach any food source. And photograph all necropsies!
Finally, Douglas Mader, a veterinarian and specialist in reptiles, gave a fun and extremely interesting presentation on reptile forensics, a subject I know NOTHING about. It was truly fascinating, because he made us question what really constitutes abuse. Many people put live mice in a cage with a snake thinking that the snake will eat the mouse, but often the snake is not hungry but the mouse is… the mouse can cause sometimes severe damage to the snake by gnawing on it and the snake will typically fail to react because it’s predator instincts are not being utilized when it’s not hungry. This most likely isn’t abuse but merely a mistake. However, what if someone puts a ferret in with a snake? Picture the damage a ferret could inflict on a snake. That shows intent. And did you know that the USDA does not cover reptiles or amphibians with regards to care? And there is no published data on required cage habitats. Pictures of a puppy mill can invoke feelings of sadness and disgust. We’ve realized how horrible they are. But what about the snake breeders who keep them housed in tiny plastic cages with barely enough room to move, no stimulation or proper ventilation? Why is this not considered as reprehensible as the puppy mill? Interesting discussions also on whether or not reptiles and amphibians feel pain or stress or boredom, and, really, how we would know? Dr. Mader was SO much fun and had us laughing hysterically while still pondering some serious issues.
Snakes in breeding boxes in an incubator (photo from reptilegeeks.com). Is this acceptable??
Sadly, that was the end of the second day of presentations. The evening concluded with a business meeting, and some of us got together for dinner and drinks. I found myself exhausted but exhilarated by all of the things I had seen and learned. These conferences really make me anxious to learn more. I know that I will be back in school in the not-so-distant future, possibly pursuing anthropology, or molecular biology. Not sure yet. But this conference has sure given me much to think about!
Stay tuned for the third and last day! And as always, you can find more information on the IVFSA website!
Welcome! This site is all about my adventures as a forensic science graduate student as well as the new, emerging fields of veterinary and wildlife forensics. Feel free to poke around, leave comments, or say hi!