In the sun-dappled birch woods of Midtown Anchorage, on property owned by the University of Alaska Anchorage, a young, male bear lies buried in a shallow grave, a secret grave.
Headless, its four paws lopped off by a saw, the anonymous bear's only crime was expressing interest in a flock of chickens in a Muldoon backyard. No chicken was unduly molested. Nevertheless, the chickens' owner blasted the young black bear two or three times in the back with a semiautomatic handgun.
The shooter turned himself in and was released without charges. Once again, a publicly owned bear has proven to be much less valuable than a privately owned chicken.
The luckless victim is destined to be exhumed next October by a forensics anthropology class taught by Dr. Ryan Harrod.
Securing a bear carcass
I met both the bear and Harrod a short while ago. Harrod is an assistant professor at UAA who teaches some of the stuff you see on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and spinoff television programs. I watched him bury the carcass while he explained the unique experience he is planning for his upcoming class.
The idea to use a bear carcass as a substitute for a human corpse was conceived by Margan Grover, a field anthropologist and research associate in the same department. Several months ago, she asked the Alaska Department of Fish and Game if UAA could acquire several bear carcasses for its forensics class.
Dave Battle, Anchorage's acting area wildlife biologist, was happy to oblige. His office typically sees a dozen or more deceased black bears as well as several brown bears every summer. Anyone who shoots a bear in defense of life or property is required by law to skin the bear and bring the hide – with paws and head attached – and the skinned carcass to a Fish and Game office.
A bear shot in defense of life and property remains the property of the state so that its valuable hide, skull and claws don't provide an incentive to shoot a bear out of season or without a license or permit.
Disposing of the carcass is another matter. Rather than haul bear carcasses to the landfill, where the state has to pay the municipal fee like anyone else, Battle is alert to other applications.
Giving the carcass to UAA was a win-win situation for everyone but the bear.
After obtaining the carcass, Harrod and Grover sliced off most of the large muscles before burying the skeleton. It'll only be four months until the bear is dug up. They didn't think it necessary for students to paw through an envelope of decomposing flesh while retrieving the bones.
The two anthropologists added a few knife cuts, saw marks and ax blows to the bones. Those marks, and the likelihood of finding skeletal damage from the bullet wounds, will create teaching opportunities.
Replica human skeletons
Although a bear carcass has a superficial resemblance to a human corpse -- a decided advantage of using a bear versus a dog, for instance -- the course will explore a broader anthropological subject than forensic science. Harrod summed it up in one word: taphonomy, the study of the processes of decomposition.
Harrod and Grover hope to obtain at least one more bear carcass from Fish and Game. They'll also bury two or more replica human skeletons made from polyurethane resin to lend a little realism of a different sort. Well-made replica skeletons are "hand-finished to capture the subtle detail of the original specimens."
As a finishing touch, before burying the skeletons, Harrod thinks he might dress them.
But no, he won't slip a sweatsuit, cocktail dress or other articles of clothing on any bear carcass. That might be crossing a line, even for a professor of forensic anthropology.
Harrod says forensic anthropology is a popular university course. Next fall's class is already booked.
Harrod and Grover are both professional anthropologists, more comfortable than most around dead bodies, human or ursine. However, the upcoming forensics class will include as many as 25 students with no experience digging up bodies.
Be assured that I'll be present when the grisly bears are disinterred. People say the most interesting things when they are utterly grossed out.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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