There are a host of jobs that take a special skill set and definitely don’t require a suit or heels. Read on to meet four people with career choices some of us might find a bit unsettling… but that they couldn’t be happier with.
Blow flies don’t have to be smart to help solve crime. They just need to go about their business and leave it to a trained expert to unravel the puzzle.
As a forensic entomologist, Jason Byrd, Ph.D., is that expert, and answering questions about death—thanks to insects—is something he does on a regular basis.
If you were a fan of the original CSI, you’re already familiar with Byrd’s work. Not only did character Gil Grissom rely on insects to solve cases, but Byrd himself served as the show’s forensic entomology consultant for 337 episodes over 15 seasons. (A photo of the CSI cast hangs in his office.)
“In most cases, the things they did on ‘CSI’ were based in science; although, it was glamorized for television,” says Byrd. “In the real world, you couldn’t solve most cases in that time frame. The negative thing was that it created unrealistic expectations of law enforcement. But on the positive side, the show made forensic science a household name, and now crime labs and forensic science programs are much better funded than when I was seeking my education.”
Byrd always had an interest in natural science and wanted to be a crime scene technician. When he checked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, he learned he could pursue that dream with a four-year science degree in entomology.
Byrd not only obtained his Bachelor of Science but went on to earn his master’s degree and did his thesis on forensic entomology. He became just the ninth board-certified forensic entomologist in North America. Byrd has been consulting on cases with law enforcement since 1995.
Law enforcement relies on forensic entomology to provide a minimum post mortem interval (PMI), which tells how much time has elapsed since death. Forensic entomology also provides answers related to toxicology, trauma analysis, location of death and genetic analysis (DNA).
“There are many different species of flies, and because flies are very mobile and ubiquitous, their quick growth rate is used to help determine time of death,” Byrd explains. “A three-day-old maggot (the larvae of a fly) on a body tells you the person has been dead at least three days, so we can determine minimum time very well. Aquatic insects can also tell us how long a body was in a lake, for instance.”
Both adult and larval samples are collected at the scene. Sometimes the larvae must be allowed to develop into adults in order to accurately identify the species, and make no mistake: Species identification is crucial to solving a case.
“In many cases, we discover maggots on a body that are not from fly species found in this area,” says Byrd. “So then law enforcement can start looking for missing persons reports in areas where we know that species is found.”
Entomology ties closely into other pathology. Trauma—gunshot or knife wound, for example—will change the way insects colonize a body when they show up at the scene. Maggots can even be used to recover human DNA if there’s no soft tissue left on a body when it’s discovered.
Maggots are the most common insect Byrd deals with. Beetles are a close second. Both are found at crime scenes, although beetles show up after the flies and develop more slowly.
“I always thought I’d be a crime scene tech, so this is quite different, but I still go to the scene and help solve crimes,” notes Byrd, who spends about one third of his time in the field. “What I like even more is the educational aspect of teaching law enforcement how to process crime scenes.”
After 23 years working on human cases, in 2009, Byrd added animal cases to his workload. About 25 percent of his cases are now animal-based. He finds it especially satisfying to help get an animal cruelty or poaching conviction when one would never have come about without the help of forensic entomology.
It’s obvious Byrd enjoys his job. You also have to appreciate the man’s sense of humor. Who else could get away with a light-up maggot and giant beetle paperweight on their desk?
At the time of our interview, he was working on a dozen cases.
“Want to see some maggots?” he asked, as he headed to the lab.
Actually, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate ending to our visit.
Nuisance Animal Removal
Critter under the house? Suspicious rustlings in the attic?
There’s someone you can call. And no, it’s not Ghostbusters. When you call a nuisance wildlife control company like Centurian Wildlife Services, they send out a trained service technician to handle the situation. (Service technician sounds much less dramatic than “nuisance animal wrangler,” but the end result is the same.)
“We get a little bit of everything, from rats to coyotes, snakes, bats and armadillos,” says Chris Hartmann, 25, general manager with Centurian Wildlife Services. “We actually get quite a few calls about roof rats in houses in the city.”
Animals in crawl spaces and attics are a common call. In many cases, the culprit is a squirrel or raccoon. The service tech catches the animal in a humane trap using whatever bait the particular species is most fond of. Junk food works in many cases; Hartmann says you can catch a lot of critters with a Slim Jim or honey bun.
After safely removing the animal, the service technician also cleans up any mess left behind (urine, droppings, insects, nesting debris, etc.), identifies the access points and properly seals them off. Gable vents and loose shingles frequently serve as openings for critters determined to find entrance.
Hartmann says that about 90 percent of the time, the critters are alive, which he greatly prefers over the alternative.
His worst call involved a skunk that had crawled into the insulation under a mobile home and died. By the time the homeowner called, the carcass was decaying. (And in case you’re wondering, a rotting skunk smells even worse than a live one.)
Here in Florida, snakes often find themselves in places where homeowners don’t want them. The largest snake Hartmann has been called out for was a 5 1/2-foot Eastern Diamondback that had taken up residence in someone’s stable.
Most calls are handled during daylight hours, unless there’s something potentially dangerous like a snake in the house. That qualifies as an emergency, even if the call comes in the middle of the night.
“If someone calls about a snake in their pond or on their property, it’s very difficult to trap those, especially when they’re in areas where snakes come and go. Even if we caught a dozen, there would be more,” Hartmann explains. “But if there’s a snake in a house or barn, we can set traps.”
The best scenario is when the homeowner can keep eyes on the animal until the service tech arrives.
Hartmann remembers one urgent call when the homeowner swore they’d seen the snake under the porch. When he arrived and searched the area, there was no snake in sight. The frightened homeowner insisted it was right there and that she could even see part of it. Hartman finally located a garden hose under the porch, which turned out to be the offending “snake,” much to the homeowner’s embarrassment.
About the only nuisance wildlife call Hartmann won’t tackle is an alligator. By law, those must be handled by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
Dead skunks aside, Hartmann loves his job.
“I love working with animals, and I prefer being outdoors. I like the variety, and it definitely beats sitting in a cubicle all day,” he says.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve been catching every animal I could,” laughs Hartmann. “Instead of writing book reports on Harry Potter in middle school, I was reading field guides on things like identifying snakes and writing reports on those. My teachers didn’t appreciate that.”
Embalmer and Crematory Operator
At first glance, you might think Matt Von Ohlen’s work is about death, but for him it’s really about life.
“I got into this because I really care about families,” says Von Ohlen, 28, a licensed embalmer and crematory operator, who has worked at Hiers-Baxley Funeral Home in Ocala since 2008.
There are three mortuary schools in Florida; Von Ohlen attended the one at St. Pete College. A two-year program, followed by a one-year internship, is required to become an embalmer. To be a crematory operator, one must be licensed through the state and trained and awarded a certificate by the company of the crematory machine used at the funeral home.
“Once the family notifies us that the death has occurred, our staff responds no matter the time of day, and the body is brought to our care center,” says funeral home director Steve Tweedle.
“We meet with the family and discuss different services and options. We spend a lot of time with them and use the process known as ‘Share Life’ to find out about the person’s likes, dislikes and to help develop the service,” he explains.
Asking for a recent picture of the deceased helps Von Ohlen do the best job possible. Sickness can ravage a person’s body, but his end goal is always to restore dignity, creating the best “memory picture” possible for the family.
The deceased remains in a temperature-controlled environment until all paperwork and permission from the family is complete. The actual room where the process takes place looks much like a surgical suite, which makes sense as the body’s natural venous system is used for the embalming process.
Von Ohlen’s primary tasks are disinfection, so that the family can safely spend time with their loved one, and restoration so the person looks as good as possible.
“We make sure their features and expression look natural,” says Von Ohlen. “This part of the embalming process really does make a difference in the memory picture we’re making for the family.”
In most cases, funeral services take place within 48 hours of embalming. Some families request embalming even if their loved one is going to be cremated because they still want a viewing of the body.
In the case of cremation, state law requires the death certificate signed by a doctor and a cremation authorization form from the medical examiner’s office. These requirements take a minimum of three to five working days.
It is also state law that the body be placed in a cremation container, which can be as simple as a fiberboard container or as fancy as a high-end burial casket. The entire container is then placed in the crematory. Family members are allowed to witness the start of the cremation.
Some people might be haunted by the nagging question, is that really my loved one’s remains?
“Regardless of whether the family requests burial or cremation, their loved one’s body never leaves our facility,” assures Tweedle. “When someone is to be cremated, for example, they are assigned a number and that number is on all paperwork and on a metal disk that stays with the person at all times. In the case of cremation, that metal disk goes into the crematory and then is placed in the urn with the cremated remains. We have many safeguards in place.”
Ironically, the actual process of cremation takes about the same time as embalming, about three to four hours.
“Matt is doing a service most people don’t even consider, but it’s a necessary and sensitive one,” says Tweedle. “The family never sees Matt, but we’re glad to know he’s back there.”
“If the family is happy with the last memory picture, then what I’ve done is a success,” says Von Ohlen modestly. “That’s very important to me.”
Good taxidermy is all about lifelike realism. If that mounted deer or elk looks like it just stepped out of the woods, the taxidermist knows his stuff.
For Jay Wood, 57, owner of Tony’s Artistic Taxidermy in Hawthorne, Florida, making game animals look alive is what it’s all about. A taxidermist since 1981, Wood initially enrolled as a pre-vet student at the University of Florida. After taking his first deer to be mounted, he ended up dropping out of college, going to work for an experienced taxidermist and learning the trade from the ground up.
In 1997, Wood began working for Tony Gilyard and, in 2003, bought out Gilyard, but the sign on the shop never changed.
“It’s the oldest taxidermy shop in North Florida; it’s been Tony’s since 1968, so we didn’t change the name,” he explains.
So what does it take to turn a hunter’s success into a mount you can proudly display?
Time, for one thing. Taxidermy is not a fast process.
The hunter typically brings in an unskinned head or, for a full body mount, the entire body (already gutted, of course). It’s usually frozen, so Wood’s first task is to skin it, carefully removing all the flesh with a razor-sharp scalpel. Once the hide is clean, it is salted and allowed to dry. Wood then sends it off to a tannery.
Wood’s time line is completely dependent on the tannery, and it’s not unusual for a hide to be there for six months. Once the hide is sent back to Wood, it’s tanned leather with the hair on it. At this point, Wood can get to work.
The hide must be stretched over a hard foam mannequin that looks like the original animal. Taxidermy supply companies make a host of different mannequins.
“We do a fair number of life-size mounts, but the most popular is the shoulder mount,” Wood notes.
Before it can be glued onto the mannequin, the tanned hide must be pliable. Wood soaks it in water for a couple hours and then places it in a plastic bag overnight.
Getting the hide in place is only the beginning.
“The biggest thing is getting the expression right. High-quality eyes are important,” says Wood, who uses detailed glass eyes.
Then it’s time for finish work, which is handled by Wood’s crew. Ronnie (She’s 85 and has been with the company over 30 years.) does pre-finish work before a mount hits the paint room. Andy takes care of the air brushing, adding final touches to the muzzle and nostrils, inside corner and rims of the eyes and gums (and tongue if the mouth is open). On a life-size predator mount, he also does the pads of the feet. Andy also mounts small animals, fish, and snakes and makes habitat bases.
Because of the time a hide must be at the tannery, it usually takes seven or eight months from the time the hunter drops off the head/body until Wood finishes the mount.
A taxidermy mount will last for hundreds of years if kept in a dark vault at low humidity and a temperature of 35 to 40 degrees. Of course, you can’t enjoy it in those conditions, so your next best bet is a windowless “man cave.”
“Sunlight is the biggest enemy of skin and hair, so you’ll want to keep a mount away from direct sunlight and windows. The darker the room the better,” says Wood. “Climate control is especially important. Otherwise, the changes in temperature and humidity will break it down over time.”
The most unusual project Wood ever completed has to be the Dale Earnhardt goat (with the number three on its side!) he did for the Texas Motor Speedway. That particular mount was more work than usual because Wood had to make a plaster cast of the actual body, as taxidermy supply companies didn’t have a domestic goat form available.
Although Wood enjoys hunting, he is a strong advocate for careful management of wild animals to maintain healthy populations. He’s also an animal lover who has two dogs and six cats.
“I’m always picking up strays,” he admits with a smile.