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A Talk on the Wild Side.

High-Schoolers, Teacher Learn about Wildlife Forensics

 Ms. Laske's class watches the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory webcast.

Letitia Laske, a biology teacher at Brainerd High School in Brainerd, Minnesota, calls herself “a true newcomer to wildlife forensics.”

She needed to come up with a new elective course for her students, many of whom are avid hunters, trappers and anglers, and says in an email, “wildlife forensics is the one that stuck.”

Originally, she thought of forensics because she had some experience there. But she “wanted to pair the idea of forensics with wildlife conservation.”

In past summers, she had taught a weeklong class on wildlife forensics at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley to fifth- and sixth-graders. So she then expanded on the ideas in the class to make it work for 11th- and 12th-graders. 

Her students seem glad.

While one took wildlife forensics simply because “I didn’t want to take chemistry,” most of her students sound interested in the subject and several say they are thinking about a career in wildlife forensics.

Laske doesn’t have a text book, she says, but she has found some great resources. On March 3, World Wildlife Day, she got another one.

Our Forensics Laboratory – the first and only full-service wildlife forensics lab in the world – held a live webcast to introduce people to the lab and the science fighting wildlife crime.

“It was really great seeing the folks featured in … so many of the articles I have read … taking time out of their busy job to speak to us,” she says.

Laske has also used the lab's website and a few books. A local conservation officer has helped out, too.

 The lab has a webpage for students and educators
Learn more about wildlife trafficking.
Learn about the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

This is the first year for Laske’s Wildlife Forensics class, but she and her students have been busy.

The conservation officer brought in a Wall of Shame by Turn in Poachers, a local anti-poaching group. The wall has displays of poached deer, and the class learned about taking measurements and recording data as well as the difference between horns and antlers.

The officer also showed off pelts of Minnesota furbearers, and the class had a lesson about hair and fiber.

Using our lab’s “Identification Guidelines for Shahtoosh and Pashmina,” the class learned more about the plight of the Tibetan antelope. 

After a lesson on fingerprinting, the class studied identifying tigers by their facial patterns/stripes (similar to fingerprinting in humans, tiger patterns are distinct). They then identified species of spotted cats and zebras by photographs of their pelts as well as by using information guidelines from the lab.

 lab tools
 Some tools of the wildlife forensics trade. Photo by Kayt Jonsson/USFWS

This labwork is a favorite part of the class for a number of students. As one says in an email, “I like to solve the problems and see what the answer is.”

They plan to study ivory, too. Several students say they were surprised when folks on the webcast mentioned how the first test they often do with ivory, or leather or animal skin or any number of items, tells if the item is genuine.

And like any good teacher, Laske is right there with her students, learning as well.

“A true newcomer?” We prefer to think of Laske as a true trailblazer for wildlife conservation.

-- Matt Trott, External Affairs

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