Montana sends ‘mystery animal’ to forensics lab in Ashland

ASHLAND, Ore.– A mysterious creature in Montana has left many wildlife officials mystified. Over the past several weeks, photos of the animal made headlines internationally as many were left scratching their heads and giving their best guess on what it could be.

After being killed by a rancher near Denton, initial reports called the animal a wolf. However, Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ wolf specialists all agreed that the animal was not a purebred wolf.

People on social media have described it from everything as a werewolf, wolf-dog hybrid to a chupacabra, prompting the latest case of mythology and fantasy coming to life.

The body was sent to a department lab but last Friday, officials from the lab reached out to Lab Director Ken Goddard of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, for help solving this case.

With a lot of hype surrounding this animal, scientists at the lab were intrigued but Goddard says that as forensics scientists, they just love to solve puzzles.

“It’s amusing. We’re as intrigued as anybody else by a good story,” said Goddard, before pausing.  “We’re skeptical.”

Not meant as a way to crush the hopeful dreams of some, these forensic scientists are just doing their job.

“We try not to bias our work with our belief in what it may or may not be,” said senior forensics scientist, Mary Burnham Curtis. “Because having a preconceived idea of what you’re working with, you could run into problems.”

Burnham Curtis works in the genetics section of the laboratory. Tissue samples were sent over from the Bozeman lab and she and her team will be working to figure out what the animal is. But at the same time, they’ll be working on hundreds of other projects as well.

Set up in 1981, this is the only forensics lab in the world that offers a full service of forensics. From morphology to genetics, the lab works with 182 countries to solve crimes against wildlife.

“We don’t think highly of the uses people put to animals these days,” said Goddard. “But that’s just part of our job to figure that out.”

While this case has garnered a lot of public interest, it’s not the only one that needs answers. According to Goddard, the lab has in it’s morphology department some 60,000 specimens of pieces and parts of animals from all over the world.

Along with around 50,000 individual DNA samples, the lab is a source of information on wildlife crimes for countries all across the globe. Which also means, there’s not a lot these scientists haven’t seen.

“Rarely is there something that we’ve never seen before and if it’s something we’ve never seen before often it’s a protected animal we don’t have a reference sample for,” said Burham Curtis. “But sasquatch, chupacabra. Not likely.”

The possibility of finding a new species would be exciting for the laboratory but they’re focused on the task at hand – whatever that may be.

“We are crime laboratory, a science facility,” said Goddard. “That’s our passion. That’s what we are here to do and we love doing it.”

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