But there was one episode that I refused to watch: "Black Rhino." From commercials for it, I knew it was about poaching, the killing of rhinoceroses for their ivory horns. I couldn't bear to watch even the fictitious murder of an innocent, unsuspecting animal, even if MacGyver did catch the bad guys at the end.
After going veg a few years ago, however, I realized that ignorance is not bliss, that ignoring a problem wouldn't make it go away. Awareness and outspokenness are key to solving the problems that plague our society.
That sentiment is stated early on in the new book "Animal Investigators: How the World's Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species" by Laurel A. Neme, Ph.D.
In the foreward by Richard Leakey, a renowned paleontologist and conservationist, he writes that illegal wildlife trafficking "cannot be stemmed without both greater investment in enforcement and increased awareness." He goes on to say, "It is my hope that the telling of [wildlife enforcement officers'] fascinating stories will help generate the public support necessary to expand both their efforts and the work of their colleagues and allies around the world."
Indeed "Animal Investigators" tells three distinct stories about wildlife killings and smuggling, with one of the common threads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, OR. The "Scotland Yard of wildlife crime," it opened in 1989 and is like a "CSI" for murdered animals.
The three stories focus on walrus in Alaska, bear bile in Canada and the United States and tropical birds from Brazil.
To be sure, this is not an animal-rights book. While Neme and the officials with the forensics lab take poaching seriously -- with the lab officials devoting their lives to fighting it -- they look at the killing of animals from a conservation/extinction perspective, not from a view that each individual animal -- regardless of endangered status -- has a right to live.
Although one statement in the book comes close to animal-rights philosophy and could be applied to all animals.
When consumers and sellers value animals only for the products they can provide, wildlife will continue to be exploited and possibly endangered.Nevertheless this is an important book and one worth reading. I liked how Neme characterized the murdered animals as "victims," just as police do with murdered people.
The lab handles over 30,000 species of victims, which makes a regular police lab, with a mere one species to worry about, look like a vacation spot.One of the most difficult aspects of the investigation is determining which species has been killed. This issue is especially true when investigators only have part of the victim -- a tusk, a belt or medication made from some part of the animal.
It's also interesting to shadow lab scientists as they work through the scientific method and the chain of custody of evidence. Their work is so methodical that sometimes I wished they'd make assumptions and skip a few steps to save time. However, doing so would only hurt the animals in the long run, with courts not allowing testimony from the scientists if mistakes are consistently made.
Unfortunately the weak punishment for wildlife murders and smuggling encourages the crimes to continue. If these people were murdering people instead of walrus, bears or birds, they'd be considered serial killers. Instead of blaming the slaughter on psychopathology, we blame it on greed. And capitalism honors greed. So instead of being sentenced to decades in prison, they get a slap on the wrist.
In the United States, a 1994 study on the FWS wildlife inspection program by the General Accounting Office (GAO) noted that only a quarter of violators of the Endangered Species Act received any penalty, with a far lower percentage sentenced to probation or prison. Even repeat offenders rarely received substantial fines or jail time.As Neme writes, "The victims of wildlife crimes are silent, but the wildlife forensics lab gives them a voice--one that grows stronger every day. Yet it's up to us to sustain their ability to speak."
Maybe now it's time I watched that episode of "MacGyver."
You can find "Animal Investigators" (Scribner, 2009) at any bookstore, including online at Better World Books, where a portion of the proceeds funds literacy projects worldwide.
(Image courtesy of Better World Books.)