When it comes to fatal gunshot wounds, forensic pathologist Richard Stroud likes to examine things from the inside out. The bruising and tissue trauma, the size difference between entrance and exit wounds--everything becomes more obvious from the underside of the skin. Consequently, Stroud has developed a habit of skinning out the victims that pass across his autopsy table.
"Of course, I don't have to worry about families wanting the body back for burial," Stroud says.
On this day, the luckless fatality is a Mexican wolf that had been part of a reintroduction program in the Southwestern brushlands of Arizona and New Mexico. Unlike some of the bedraggled specimens Stroud has seen of late, this wolf appears to have been making a success of it, judging from the healthy feel of its coat and skin. Then it met up with someone unimpressed with the wolf's protected status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
A preliminary examination of the wolf revealed what appeared to be a bullet entrance wound--no bigger than a baby's pinky--on the animal's rear-left flank and a ragged exit wound--around the size of a man's thumb--behind the right shoulder. But a head-to-haunches X-ray failed to reveal the typical snowstorm of shiny flecks that result when a hunting bullet begins disintegrating on impact, leaving a mushroom of bullet fragments inside the animal's body. With no bullet or bullet fragments to retrieve for a ballistics report, Stroud decides to assess internally, hoping for clues that might guide field investigators as to what kind of bullet and bullet casing to look for--and where--in the area where the carcass was found.
Stroud is on his way out of his office to begin the necropsy when he gets a call from the Fish & Wildlife special agent who FedExed the victim--neatly folded and frozen in a 4-foot-by-1-foot cooler--the previous Friday. "Don't worry, I'm on my way to do your dog," Stroud reassures, with the implied promise that he'll have something useful to report in a few hours.
In essence, Stroud is the nation's chief medical examiner for wildlife. His autopsy suite: a converted garage attached to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's forensic laboratory in Ashland, Oregon--the world's only crime lab dedicated to animals. In addition to helping investigate the poaching of threatened and endangered wildlife, the lab has earned an international reputation for its ability to analyze and identify just about anything that could have come from or been made out of a wild animal.
In preparation for today's wolf necropsy, Stroud pulls a blue lab coat over his usual plaid flannel shirt and Levis and yanks on a pair of surgical gloves. Stroud's sunspotted hands, like his freckled face and thinning sand-and-salt hair, reflect a half century spent as much as possible outdoors. An avid hunter and fisherman since boyhood, Stroud says his years of field dressing deer and elk have proven highly useful throughout a career that began as a wildlife biologist studying the stomach contents of Arctic marine mammals in the late 1960s. Clearly, Stroud hails from the old school of wildlife management--one that views animals as natural resources to be managed rather than lovable friends needing protection for their own sake. "It's no longer cool to collect data the way we used to," says Stroud of the politically incorrect days when he was killing fur seals for science, right alongside hunters doing so for profit.
In the early 1970s, Stroud graduated from veterinary school with a specialty in pathology, and later adapted what he had learned working on pets and livestock to wildlife at the San Diego Zoo. Twenty-five years ago, he began working for U.S. Fish & Wildlife, with a primary focus on the diseases that afflict migrating waterfowl.
In 1989, Ken Goddard, the founding director of the wildlife agency's newly opened $4.5 million forensic lab, proudly invited Stroud to tour his facilities. A former police-crime-lab director, Goddard had designed the lab to include the latest equipment and resources in all areas of criminalistics, from toxicology and DNA to ballistics and trace-fiber evidence.
Says Stroud of the visit, "I told him, 'This is all very nice, but where do you examine the dead animals?'"
Fifteen years later, Goddard admits, "I hadn't really thought of it." Understandably so. Even the most sophisticated police crime laboratories leave autopsies to the nearest medical examiner. Unfortunately, at the time, there was no such thing as a forensic veterinary pathologist. "All I could do was tell the special agents to dig the bullets out of their victims as best they could and send them in to us for ballistic analysis," says Goddard.
That all changed a few months later, when Stroud finagled a departmental transfer and career change that included medical examiner training at the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, in Washington, D.C.
For the most part, the merger of crime lab and medical examiner's office has proven amicable, says Goddard, aside from Stroud's impatience with the perennial requests that he use more air freshener in the course of his work. "As a police investigator, I've worked my share of floaters," says Goddard of his own tolerance for even the rankest of human corpses (floaters being the partially submerged corpses often found in an advanced state of decomposition). Apparently, wildlife carcasses can be far worse. "We're convinced the man has no sense of smell," Goddard says of Stroud's indifference.
On the other hand, many of Stroud's cases involve what he calls "dinner-quality meat," owing to his practice of having field agents freeze their carcasses before shipping. Today, the wolf on Stroud's table is just such a fresh-frozen kill, thawed over the weekend for a Monday autopsy. On the whole, it proves odorless until dissection of the stomach exposes pieces of animal even deader than it is. Stroud retrieves and tags several pieces of fur and bone for DNA analysis--to identify what may have been the victim's last meal.
More pertinent to this investigation, Stroud reaches past the wolf's internal organs to feel whether its spine has sustained damage. It has not, which suggests that the wolf would have continued to run for some distance after being shot. That's bad news for the field investigator, who'll find it harder to locate bullet casings and other evidence than if the wolf had dropped on impact.