Inside the Lab Part 1: How forensic analysts at UF are solving wildlife crimes worldwide

FOX 35 is airing a three-part series on the work a small team of scientists at the University of Florida (UF) are doing to help solve crimes across the globe. 

Our first story focuses on wildlife crimes.

Within a tight-quartered lab with a small staff at the College of Veterinary Medicine, you’ll find 3D-printed bones and machines to help with DNA analysis, specimen comparisons, and microscopy.

But don’t let the lab coats fool you. These scientists are fighting crime.

Ginger Clark, a forensic DNA analyst for UF’s Veterinary Lab, put it simply: "What we do in this lab is, we use DNA evidence to help in criminal cases."

Inside the Lab Part 2: How DNA researchers are helping crack animal cruelty cases

UF partners with 200 different law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and all over the world.

That includes helping sheriff’s offices in Volusia and Osceola counties and the Daytona Beach Police Department.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is one of UF’s closest partners.

Captain Herbert Frerking works in FWC statewide investigations and told FOX 35 he’s in charge of the intelligence and DNA forensics sections for crimes against wildlife.

"We really focus on the commercialization of wildlife. So folks that are taking Florida's natural resources and using them and exploiting them for commercial gain," Frerking explained. "They'll take them, and then they'll sell them, whether it's in the pet trade or in the food trade."


He says it isn’t just poaching animals that are always off-limits; they see a lot of people hunting and fishing out of season or without permits, or going after the wrong size or gender of animal.

Captain Frerking explained that you can't generalize or make assumptions when you take this stuff to court. 

"It's similar to any kind of other investigation. You want to build your layers of evidence to get a successful prosecution," he said.

Dr. Eileen Roy Zokan is a DNA Analyst with the FWC. She says she’s been in population genetics and molecular biology for around two decades but has always been passionate about wildlife. 

Her new position allows her to merge those interests.

She explained the FWC’s relationship with UF goes back to the mid-to-late 1990s. The FWC Forensics Program contacted UF, asking for help with deer poaching cases. The newly-formed team has been taking UF-analyzed DNA to court ever since. 

In 2020, the FWC entered a long-term partnership with the university, housing its own lab within UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine. 

"Through them, we have been able to expand the suite of services that are available to our officers and our investigators," Dr. Roy Zokan said.

She says her work is just one part of the story when it comes to cracking a case. Every element in the team of investigators and scientists is needed to reach a final result. That team is also working on developing new tools to help them with that goal, Dr. Roy Zokan said. 

"There are a lot of new technologies that are coming out," Zokan said. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of them. Dr. Adam Stern, a Professor of Forensic Pathology at UF College of Veterinary Medicine, says AI could soon be used in their microscopy work. It could help identify patterns that speed up medical examiners’ attempts to identify what killed a particular animal. 

 "We’re kept on our toes a lot, Zokan said. "It's very fulfilling to constantly have that challenge. You're constantly learning and growing. It's really exciting to be a part of."


UF has educational programs where they teach students within the veterinary college, along with law enforcement officers. 

At UF, they’re also working to fill in gaps.

One problem forensic pathologists encounter is that blood changes after death, so they’re experimenting with fluid from the eye instead.

They use a machine to analyze the enzymes and proteins automatically. That could tell them whether an animal might’ve had a disease and tell them how long it’s been since the animal passed away.

Clark says that could clear suspects’ names and land convictions in some cases.

"It’s always satisfying to find that match and to be able to say yes, it all goes together because often the DNA is a very important part in the puzzle," Clark said.

The research on ocular fluid could be a massive help with wildlife crimes. For now, though, it’s focused primarily on marine animals and companion animals like cats and dogs.

Another portion of FOX 35’s series on UF’s forensic research focuses on companion animals.