A Review of “Animal Investigators”

The world’s only facility dedicated to investigating crimes against animals — officially it’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory — is in Ashland. The lab’s director, Ken Goddard, is not only a pioneer in applying the techniques for investigating human crimes to violations of both U.S. laws regulating wildlife and international treaties protecting endangered species, he’s also a best-selling author.

Goddard’s latest book, in fact, was an assignment to write a novel based on characters from the TV series “CSI” — a pretty spectacular crossover into popular culture for a scientist, and one you’d think a fellow writer would want to explore. However, reading Laurel A. Neme’s “Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species,” a book purportedly about the wildlife lab and its work, you will learn nothing of Goddard and very little about the lab or its resident scientists.

Instead, “Animal Investigators” bogs down in tedious detail about poaching walrus ivory by Native Alaskans, or the implications of a pretty large market for bear gall bladders and bear bile driven by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.

The lab does develop a technique to identify which walrus carcasses spotted on remote Alaskan beaches were beheaded by knowledgeable hunters — an indication of ivory poaching rather than traditional subsistence hunting — but prosecuting the illegal hunters turns out to depend less on the lab’s work than on undercover operations. And the lab’s contribution can be described in a couple of pages, while Neme devotes three chapters to the walrus poaching. That the tale of walrus poaching is worth telling is not the issue — it’s whether or not the reporting comes to life and provides the reader with insights and vision.

The gall bladder chapters are equally sprawling, involving page after page describing how the lab developed a way to distinguish bear bile from, say, pig’s bile. (The underlying case Neme writes about, rather breathlessly, was dismissed when it turned out the culprit was peddling pig’s gall bladders, which is not a crime, although I suppose a shrewd prosecutor might fashion a fraud case on behalf of the agent trying to buy what he thought were bear gall bladders.)

As with the walrus poaching, the lab’s role in these chapters is marginal, at best. And the scientist doing the lab work? While his work is described in detail, the person performing it is a cipher.

Neme does perform a service in posing the ethical dilemma surrounding bear bile farming, an example of an approach to endangered species that a number of economists have advocated, and which the North Koreans, of all people, pioneered.

Neme persuades us, based on the investigations of the English animal rights advocate Jill Robinson, that harvesting bile from living bears is an ordeal for the caged bears, though it may take some pressure off poaching wild animals.

The Chinese are moving ahead with their schemes to farm not just bears, but also tigers. Wildlife advocates hate this approach, while economists argue, in essence, that if farming is so bad, why aren’t cows and pigs endangered? But what, we wonder, does this have to do with the U.S. Wildlife Lab?

There is nothing about the town of Ashland in this book — no description of the lab’s physical plant, its history or how its presence is perceived by the locals. We learn little about how the scientists feel about their jobs, what motivates them, who they spend time with, what their spouses think of their work, what they do on their days off.

Good nonfiction brings its characters to life, which is why the adjective “creative” is often attached to the best work in the genre. When I think of Tracy Kidder writing about Dr. Paul Farmer’s heroic labors in Haiti or, closer to home, Barry Lopez’s masterful epic, “Arctic Dreams,” a book whose images of marine mammals still resonate two decades after I first read them, I can’t help reflecting on what a missed opportunity “Animal Investigators” represents.

Lopez noted, for example, that Eskimos used walrus ivory for “more than a hundred items,” among them “a dog harness buckle. A wound pin to keep a seal from bleeding. Part of a fox trap. A tent-line tensioner.” (The market for walrus ivory grew, Neme notes, when trade in elephant ivory was banned — another example of the law of unintended consequences.)

Ironically, it is only in her concluding chapter, summarizing the scale of the international trade in wildlife and the puny apparatus in place to fight it, that Neme brings her passion for the subject to life.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has “a force of just under 115 officers stationed at seventeen designated ports,” expected to deal with more than 20,000 containers that enter U.S. ports daily. Scotland Yard, Neme writes, has only four people assigned to wildlife crime.

The Wildlife Lab is a multiplier, she says, amplifying the efforts of these abbreviated staffs. “Animal Investigators” does not show us how this effect actually works.

Laurel A. Neme, Scribner
$25, 256 pages

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