Illegally obtained and confiscated tusks, bones, talons and teeth — Cookie Sims has seen a lot.
She is part of a small group of morphologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, that official and mysterious-looking building on East Main Street that doesn't inspire a second thought as to what goes on inside. The lab is just like a police lab, but there's one difference: The victims are animals.
Sims' 9-to-5 workday consists of using comparative anatomy to identify animals (or their remains) and determine whether any wildlife laws have been violated. And she wouldn't have it any other way.
"I always loved biology courses," says Sims. "It just came naturally. I could remember the names of hundreds of plants with barely any effort."
But her passion for the natural world wasn't born from textbooks and classrooms. She recalls a strong fascination with the environment from a young age.
"My brothers and I played outside constantly, and they would teach me how to handle wild animals. We also had a great set of animal encyclopedias I read incessantly."
Though a love of biology has long been in her blood, she didn't pursue it in school initially.
Sims started out as a premed student, but after a year working as a nurse in Texas, she knew it wasn't for her. "It's also important to discover what you don't like," she says.
Sims transferred to Southern Oregon University to complete a bachelor's degree in biology, as well as a master's.
"Sometimes I say, 'Wow, I get paid to learn about koalas all day,' " says Sims.
Not only does the job come instinctively to Sims, but ecological value of the work she does is a driving force on its own.
"Humans are consuming the world, hogging resources. It feels good to halt illegal poaching, and I think people would be more supportive if they knew more about what we do. I wish there were more wildlife-protection outreach programs."
Some days she might by trying to identify whether a carving is made of walrus ivory or cattle horn. Another day, she'll determine whether a fur coat is genuine lynx or dyed rabbit fur or what type of reptile skin was used to make a watchband.
"We don't always get to know the results of case hearings," says Sims. "But I still know we are doing good things."
Her hard work and zeal for wildlife protection might get the best of her at times, she confesses.
"I just have to remember that no one wishes they had worked more while laying on their deathbed," notes Sims.
Like any profession, the work can be demanding and labor-intensive, but Sims notes a few unexpected perks.
"I've been lucky enough to travel as far as Botswana for job training. I absolutely love working with wildlife in unfamiliar cultures."
The oddest case she has worked on? A few years ago Sims received what appeared to be a puppet in a small, plastic bag.
"I could tell the bones were carefully chosen because the length of the limbs (was) proportionate, and the head fit perfectly," says Sims.
The bizarre, little figure was constructed with cat, dog and rodent bones, so it didn't end up violating any laws, says Sims, but it certainly stirred up some curiosity in the halls of the forensics lab.
"It was just weird and a little creepy."