Fowl play? Scientists investigate wildlife crime in secret Oregon lab

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By Janet Shamlian and Chris Serico

Imagine a high-tech crime lab where investigators use forensics to solve cases — in which the victims are animals.

It’s not a TV spinoff, but a real-life scenario in rural Oregon, where an elite team of scientists convene in a secretive, one-of-a-kind facility.

“Sadly, this is the only such lab in the world,” Ken Goddard, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Forensics Laboratory, told TODAY. “We’re the only full-service wildlife crime lab.”

Based in Ashland, a 20-minute drive from California’s northern border, the building might have an unremarkable façade not unlike a one-story elementary school. But don’t let that fool you — behind those well-secured walls is a law-enforcement operation like no other.

Rebecca Kagan, a doctor of veterinary pathology, works at the real-life “CSI” for animals. “I’m looking for the cause of death, no matter what it is,” she said.

While she investigated how a bald eagle died, another specialist on the premises reviewed an X-ray of the bird, both looking for signs of foul play. In the next room, researchers analyzed ballistics tests in a test-fire tank.

Lab results will help prosecute poachers and smugglers, as well as hunters of endangered animals.

“Our job is to link suspect, victim, crime scene together, just like a police crime lab,” Goddard said. “The difference [is] our victim is an animal.”

Goddard gave up investigating human crimes to run the lab for the Fish & Wildlife Service, which will tackle more than 800 cases this year, examine 15,000 pieces of evidence and assist partners from all over the world.

Follow writer Chris Serico on Twitter.