Every Thursday evening, like millions of families across America, we gather around the TV set to watch "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Set in Las Vegas, the forensic science detective series has become the No. 1 dramatic show on TV.
Each show usually weaves two cases into the hour-long episode. "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," like "ER," another top-rated series, engages us through the practical use of science and technology.
One of the cases in the Feb. 10 episode of "CSI," titled "Unbearable," involved a bear and "canned hunts," the previews declared.
The Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights groups, as well as other eco-groups, jumped all over the Internet hype of the episode's canned hunting sequence to promote their own agendas, such as Sen. Frank Lautenberg's (D-N.J.) recently introduced Sportsmanship in Hunting Act that aims to halt the interstate traffic of exotic animals for the purpose of killing or injuring them for entertainment or trophy collecting.
With popcorn in hand, I settled in to see how "CSI" would deal with such a hot subject. With such a show, I watch both with both the eyes and of a writer and actor and those of a professor who has taught ecology in several colleges and has conducted wildlife research.
The inciting incident was the discovery of the body of a hunter in the hills of Nevada. He had been clawed to death by a large animal, which we soon learn is a huge bear nearby that also is dead. OK, so far.
Almost immediately afterward errors start popping up like mushrooms following a warm spring rain.
The deputy sheriff identifies the bruin as a Kodiak bear, which is, of course, not native to Nevada.
I spoke with a former Special Agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who assured me that unless the character of the deputy was a skilled wildlife biologist, it would not have been possible in the field to ID the bear as a Kodiak bear, as opposed to a brown bear or a grizzly bear.
As the show continues, the victim and the bear are taken to the autopsy room, where it is remarked that bringing a huge bear in for an autopsy was a "first."
It might be a first for a Las Vegas police forensic lab in TV land. But not that far away in Ashland, Ore., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the Clark Bavin Forensic Wildlife laboratory, the world's foremost forensic wildlife lab, where all kinds of exotic animals end up on the autopsy table.
(The bear on the show's autopsy table looked to me like it came from Toys R Us. They should have called in a zoologist to help with the necropsy, but … perhaps that will be left for another episode.)
The autopsy shows the bear had two bullets in it — one from a .30-caliber Winchester that had struck it in the head and ricocheted off, leaving behind the copper casing; and a second lead slug from a .357 magnum handgun that apparently had dispatched the bear.
We also learn that the bear's gall bladder had been cut out.
In the ensuing investigation we learn that the hunter was wearing an expensive watch, which leads one of the "CSI" team members to remark, "Hunting is not actually a poor man's sport. U.S. presidents still hold up dead ducks for photo ops."
Did I hear someone say, "Cheap shot?"
We also learn that the hunter had strong body odor. The "CSI" team response is that some hunters don't think body odor can be smelled by animals, but that soap and deodorant can.
Apparently the scriptwriter had not picked up a Cabela's catalog to learn that all kinds of scent-free soaps and underwear are now very hot items among hunters.
The bear, we soon learn, came from the Clark County Zoo. The zookeeper says the bear, "Tippy," was sold to a broker in Chicago for resale to a zoo in Columbus, Ohio.
The "CSI team" goes online to learn that bear gall bladders are a hot item in Oriental medicine, which is true. The illegal trade in bear gall bladders is lucrative and often run by organized crime.
The demand for the bladders, the "CSI" researcher says, is to enhance male virility. That may be one claim, but the reality is that the medicinal ingredient in bear gall bladders is actually effective in treating liver and gall bladder diseases, as well as hemorrhoids.
The active ingredient has been isolated and it now is being made synthetically, which hopefully will cut black-market trade in illegal bear organs.
The hunter supposedly has tags for wild goat, deer and bighorn sheep, all at the same time, the statistical likelihood of which is about as likely at winning the California Lotto.
The ex-wife of the hunter is interviewed. She says bitterly that he was the only one in their group who owned a gun and that they argued about "his sport" and how animals suffer from being wounded by bullets.
Her final comment about her deceased ex is that "brutality begets brutality." Do we see the message here that hunters are real slobs?
The term "canned hunt" is introduced while viewing a video of a rhinoceros being shot. No hunter is seen on screen. No fences or impediments to movement are seen, and the vegetation surrounding the rhino appears to African.
We also hear in the show that canned hunts are going on all across America. They certainly aren't appearing on screen on "CSI," however.
The subsequent investigation reveals that the zoo's manager and a former employee sold the right to shoot the bear to the wealthy "hunter" for $16,000. Supposedly the zoo crew tranquilized the bear, moved it, turned it loose in the woods "25 miles from civilization" and brought the hunter to it.
The bear apparently came running toward them and stood up on all fours, at which point the hunter shot it in the head, stunning the animal. The hunter then runs up to fallen bear, which wakes up and mauls the shooter.
One of other poachers shoots the bear in the head with his pistol, but too late to save hunter; he then cuts out the bear's gall bladder to make a couple of bucks.
OK, there have been cases of people selling "hunts" of retired zoo or circus animals. Footage that I've seen has revealed the "hunters" shooting the animals in cages or in small enclosures.
It seems hard to believe that anyone, even as dumb as these guys, would risk losing $16,000 by letting the bear loose in a wild place, even if it was tame. An exotic animal on the loose, yes. (Witness the tiger recently roaming around southern California.) A guaranteed "canned hunt?" No way, Jose.
The "CSI" team determines the bear had a tranquilizer in its blood, but the bear on camera ran, stood up and acted very alive and not drugged at all. A tranquilized animal staggers, is slow and does not have a good sense of balance.
Granted, there is a huge problem with black market trade in bear gall bladders. The show's creators could have really gone into that and exposed how organized crime gets involved. Instead, they made the kid who shot the bear out to be a punk seemingly operating alone.
There was a chance here to showcase true "canned hunts," where old circus animals are gunned down in pens — a practice considered ugly and detestable to any ethical hunter.
Furthermore, an ethical hunter could have played an important role in solving the case, thus giving some balance and perspective.
Instead, we ended up with a story line that comes out like a desperate and superficial attempt by some people trying to take a cheap shot at hunting, which they apparently don't know too much about, as it is.
Note to "CSI's" producers: If you want to stay on top, remember what "Dragnet's" inspector Joe Friday said many years ago — "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts."
James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.