‘Fuzz,’ by Mary Roach: An Excerpt
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Crime Scene Forensics When the Killer Isn’t Human
For most of the past century, your odds of being killed by a cougar were about the same as your odds of being killed by a filing cabinet. Snowplows kill twice as many Canadians as grizzly bears do. In the extremely uncommon instance when a North American human is killed by a wild North American mammal, the investigation falls to officers and wardens with state or provincial departments of fish and game (or fish and wildlife, as less hunty states like mine have rebranded themselves). Because the incidents are so rare, few of these men and women have much experience with them. They’re more accustomed to poaching cases. When the tables turn and the animal is the suspect, a different kind of forensics and crime-scene know-how is called for.
Without it, mistakes are made. In 1995, a cougar was presumed to have killed a young man found dead on a trail with puncture wounds to the neck, while the true murderer, a human being, walked free. In 2015, a wolf was wrongfully accused of pulling a man from his sleeping bag and killing him. Cases like these are one reason there is WHART: Wildlife-Human Attack Response Training (and by its founders’ admission, “a horrible acronym”). WHART is a five-day course—part lecture and part field training—taught by members of the British Columbia Conservation Officer Service.
Because they have the experience. British Columbia has more cougar attacks than any other North American state or province. It has 150,000 black bears—to Alaska’s 100,000—17,000 grizzlies, and 60 predator attack specialists, 14 of whom (the specialists but not the bears) have driven down from Canada to serve as WHART instructors this week. WHART 2018 is being hosted by the Nevada Department of Wildlife, which has offices in Reno. This fact helps explain why a training course for wilderness professionals would be held in a casino complex, where the resident wildlife amounts to the furry hominid on the Betti the Yetti slot machine and an unspecified “biohazard” that closed down the pool for a day. WHART seems to be the only booking at the Boomtown Casino event and conference center this week. Management has a bingo game going on in the next room.
[ Return to the review of “Fuzz.” ]
The WHART student body, some eighty of us in all, has been split into small groups, each led by one of the predator attack specialists. Like many Canadians, they are distinguishable from white Americans mainly by sound. I’m referring to that uniquely far-northern habit of ending statements with folksy interrogatives. It’s an endearing custom thrown somewhat off-kilter by the present subject matter. “Quite a bit of consumption and feedin’ and whatnot, eh?” “Holdin’ on by two, three tendons, right, ya know?”
Our conference room, the Ponderosa, is a standard offering with a podium and a screen for slides and videos. Less standard are the five large animal skulls sitting in a row on a long table at the front of the room, like participants in a panel discussion. On the screen, a grizzly bear is attacking Wilf Lloyd of Cranbrook, British Columbia. The footage is part of a presentation entitled “Tactical Killing of a Predator on a Person.” The instructor sums up the challenge that Wilf’s son-in-law faced in trying to shoot the bear but not the man: “All you could see was the body of the bear and a limb of Wilf once in a while.” The son-in-law saved Wilf’s life but also shot him in the leg.
Another challenge: Marksmanship deteriorates under the influence of adrenaline. Fine motor skills are out the window. The thing to do, we are told, is to “run directly up to that animal, plant the barrel and shoot upward” to avoid hitting the victim. Though you then run the risk of “attack redirection.” That’s a calm, technical way to say that the animal has dropped its victim and now it’s coming after you.
A second video illustrates the importance of order and discipline in the face of animal-attack mayhem. In it, a male lion charges a safari hunter. The other members of the hunting party wheel and scatter. The video is paused at various moments when a rifle is pointing both at the lion and at a hunter directly behind it. “Stay tight and communicate,” is the advice here. We will be practicing this kind of thing later, in an immersive field scenario out in the scrub near the Truckee River, below the casino.
The cursor glides to the Play arrow again, and the lion resumes its charge. I used to work at a zoo, and the roaring in the Lion House at feeding time was God-like. It twisted my viscera. And that was just their mealtime conversation. The lion in this video means to intimidate and destroy. The bingo party has to be wondering what the hell is going on in the Ponderosa Room.
After one more presentation, we break for lunch. Preordered sandwiches are waiting for us to pick up at a small deli over in the casino. We stand in line, attracting curious glances. It’s unusual, I suppose, to see so many uniformed law enforcement professionals inside a gambling establishment. I collect my lunch sack and follow along behind a small group of conservation officers heading to the lawn outside. Their leather hiking boots squeak as they walk. “So she looks in her rearview mirror,” one is saying, “and there’s a bear in the back seat, eating popcorn.” When wildlife officers gather at a conference, the shop talk is outstanding. Last night I stepped onto the elevator as a man was saying, “Ever tase an elk?”
While we were off on lunch break, the instructors stacked the chairs against the walls and laid out soft-touch male and female training manikins on the tables, one per group. Working from photographs, some of the more artistically inclined instructors have used paint and, apparently, hacksaws to create convincing facsimiles of actual wounds from attacks. Wounds is a tepid word for what teeth and claws can do.
My group’s manikin is a female, though it would be difficult to know this from what remains of her face, or from the sign attached to the table, which reads bud. Later, walking to the bathroom, I pass a badly mauled labatt and a decapitated molson. Instead of being numbered, the manikin workstations have been beered. I take this to be an effort, a very Canadian-dude effort, to lighten the mood.
Our first task is to apply our newly acquired forensics savvy and determine what species it was that did the mauling. We’re looking at what’s known in attack forensics as “victim evidence”: injuries and clothing. The worst of the visible damage is above our manikin’s shoulder. (Only one remains.) Part of her neck is flayed, and a flap of scalp hangs loosened, like peeling stucco. Missing eyelid, nose, lips. We all agree it doesn’t seem like the work of Homo sapiens. Humans rarely eat their victims. If a murderer removes body parts, it’s likely to be hands or head—to stymie matches with fingerprints or dental records. Murderers occasionally take a trophy, but a shoulder or lip would be an unusual choice.
The consensus is that she was killed by a bear. Bears’ teeth are their main weapon, and their lightly furred face is their weak spot. When bears attack humans, they apply the tactics they use in fights with other bears. “They go teeth to teeth, right? So their instinct is to go right for your face.” Joel Kline, our youthful, forthright instructor, has been an investigator on ten cases of bear attack. “They come right at you and you have all these massive injuries right to the face.” Joel’s own face—our focus as we take in his words—is blue-eyed, unblemished, peachy clear. I work hard not to picture it in that state.
Bears are inelegant killers partly because they’re omnivores. They don’t regularly kill to eat, and evolution has equipped them accordingly. They feed on nuts, berries, fruit, grasses. They scavenge trash and carrion. A cougar, by contrast, is a true carnivore. It lives by the flesh of animals it kills, and thus it kills efficiently. Cougars stalk, well hidden, and then pounce from behind and deliver a “killing bite” to the back of the neck. Their molars close like scissors blades, cutting flesh cleanly. A bear’s mouth evolved for crushing and grinding, with flat molar surfaces and jaws that move side to side as well as up and down. Wounds made by bears’ teeth are cruder.
And more numerous. “Bears are more bite bite bite bite.” Our manikin, says Joel, is how it usually goes. “It’s a big mess.”
Looking around at the manikins, I see not just bites and scratches but broad scalpings and skinnings. Joel explains the mechanics of this. A human skull is too large and round for a bear or cougar to position between its jaws and get the leverage it would need to crush or bite into it. So when it brings its teeth together, they may skid off the skull and tear away skin. Think of biting into a very ripe plum, how the skin pulls away.
Deer, a popular entrée among cougars, have longer, more muscled necks than we have. When a cougar tries to make its trademark killing bite on a human, its teeth may encounter bone where normally there would be muscle. “They try to dig their canines in and they bring their teeth together and they take the flesh and remove it,” said WHART co-founder Kevin Van Damme, in a talk called “Cougar Attack Behavior.” Van Damme has astronaut looks and a voice that carries to the back of the Ponderosa Room without a microphone. I opened a decibel meter app on my phone at one point and was impressed to see him hit 79, about the level of a garbage disposal.
The claw marks on our simulated victim rule out a cougar. Cats’ claws, unlike dogs’, create a cluster of triangular punctures as they sink in to grip their prey. With a bear attack, you’re more likely to see what we have here in front of us, the parallel rakings of a swipe.
Joel takes a step closer to the manikin’s head. “ ’Kay, what else do we have here? Missing nose, lips, right? So later we’re going to think of looking for those in…?”
“The bear’s stomach,” a few of my group mates call out.
“Stomach contents, right on.” Joel says “Right on” a lot. Writing the chapter later, I would recall “bingo”s, too, but that may be a memory that seeped in from the other side of the wall.
[ Return to the review of “Fuzz.” ]
None of the manikin torsos in the room are laid open. There’s none of what Van Damme calls “feeding on innards.” I’m initially surprised by this. I know from research for a previous book that predatory carnivores tend to tear into the abdomen of their prey straightaway to get to the organs—the most nutritious parts. One possible reason you don’t see this as much on human victims, say our instructors, is that humans wear clothing. Both bears and cougars avoid clothed areas when they’re feeding or scavenging. Perhaps they don’t like how the cloth feels or tastes, or they don’t realize there is meat underneath.
Joel indicates a suite of wounds on the neck and shoulder. “Are we thinking perimortem or postmortem?” In other words, was our victim alive or dead as these wounds were inflicted? It’s important to know this, because otherwise a bear that was just scavenging could take the fall for a killing. Based on the bruising around the puncture wounds, we judge them to be perimortem. Dead people don’t bleed or bruise, a bruise being essentially a bleed beneath the surface of the skin. If blood is not being pumped, it doesn’t flow.
Joel tells us the story of a gnawed-upon corpse that was found near its car in the woods, partially buried under leaves. The bites appeared to have come from a bear, and a bear was trapped nearby, but there was little blood on and around the man’s body. Investigators found needle marks between the toes and a used syringe on the car floor. An autopsy confirmed that the man had died of an overdose. The bear, as Joel says, “just saw an opportunity to get some good, high fat and calorie content” and pulled him from the car and ate some of him and cached the body to come back to later. The bear was released.
Joel rolls our manikin onto its front side, revealing one or two additional perimortem gashes on the back. I point out two small divets along the spine, which exhibit no purpling or blood. I hazard a guess, based on a slide from yesterday showing postmortem rodent damage, that a small woodland creature might have been gnawing on our corpse. Joel exchanges a look with one of my group mates, a wildlife biologist from Colorado.
“Mary, those are marks from the injection molding.” Part of the manufacturing process of the manikin, he means. This would be less embarrassing for me had I not, as group notetaker in an earlier exercise, transcribed teeth-wound measurements using the abbreviation for centimeters instead of millimeters, entering into evidence a tip-to-tip canine-tooth span not seen since the Jurassic period.
We move on now from victim evidence to animal evidence: evidence on or in a “suspect” that has been shot or captured near the scene of the attack. For instance, Joel is saying, you can look for the victim’s flesh up in the pockets of the gums of the (immobilized) animal. It’s odd to think of a bear getting human stuck between its teeth, but there you go.
With cougars, Joel adds, it’s sometimes possible to recover the victim’s blood or flesh from the crevice on the interior of a claw. “So you need to push those out, those retractable claws, and you might have evidence under there, right?”
Claws can be misleading as indicators of the size of an attacker’s paw. When the animal steps down and transfers its weight onto a foot, the toes splay, making the foot appear larger. Investigators have to be cautious with measurements of claw or tooth holes in clothing as well, because the cloth could have been wrinkled or folded over as it was pierced.
“ ’Kay, what else are we looking for?”
“Victim’s blood on the fur?” someone offers.
“Yup, right on.” Joel cautions that if the bear had been shot at the scene of the attack (rather than trapped afterward), its blood could mingle with the victim’s blood and muddy the DNA tests. “And how do we prevent that?”
“Plug the wound!” And that is why men with the British Columbia Conservation Officer Service keep a box of tampons in the truck.
What we’re seeking, the end point of all this, is linkage: crime-scene evidence that connects the killer to the victim. Joel goes over to get one of the skulls from the table at the front of the room. He brings the upper teeth down onto a row of wounds in the manikin’s shoulder. This is the glass-slipper moment. Do the upper canines and incisors fit into bite marks on the manikin’s shoulder? And if so, do the lower teeth match a corresponding set of marks on the other side of the body?
It’s a match. “Pressure and…” Joel positions the lower jawbone into the wounds on the manikin’s backside. “Counterpressure. There’s your smoking gun.”
At the outset of this chapter, I mentioned a man found dead on a hiking trail with puncture marks on his neck. Investigators deemed it a cougar attack, even though there were no marks to suggest a set of matching upper and lower teeth. The wounds, it turned out, weren’t made by anyone’s teeth but by an ice pick. The murderer got away with the crime until twelve years on, when he bragged about it to a fellow inmate while serving time for something else.
Every so often, the opposite happens. A human is found guilty of a killing that was in fact committed by a wild animal. Most famously, there is Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian woman who screamed that she’d seen a dingo run off with her baby while the family was camping near Ayers Rock in 1980. We heard a presentation on the case from one of our instructors, predator attack specialist (and—stay tuned—survivor) Ben Beetlestone. Because the Australian investigators had no body and no dingo in custody, they could not do what we’re doing today. They could not link the victim evidence to the animal evidence. Without linkage, the trial turned on assumptions (for instance, that a dingo could not or would not carry off a ten-pound baby), human error, and a media frenzy that swayed public opinion. About three years after Chamberlain was convicted, a search party looking for the remains of a rock climber found a dingo lair with remnants of the baby’s clothes. Chamberlain was released and acquitted, and her conviction was overturned. The dingo really did eat her baby.
These days linkage often takes the form of a DNA match. Does DNA from the captured (or killed) suspect match DNA from hair or skin under the victim’s fingernails? Does the animal’s DNA match DNA from saliva on the victim? With animal attack cases, scavengers can complicate these efforts. While animal saliva near tooth marks on, say, a jacket has likely come from the attacking animal, saliva swabbed from the victim’s skin could have come from an animal that fed on the corpse later.
Up in the Canadian wilderness there tend to be a lot of bears around, so good linkage is vital. Van Damme shared a story about a woman killed by a bear in her yard in Lillooet, British Columbia. His team set traps and ran DNA on two “bears of interest” before they scored a match with the third. The innocent bears were released.
[ Return to the review of “Fuzz.” ]
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