Undercover agents in Alaskan wilderness

Lucinda Schroeder’s true story has all kinds of drama

by Erin Adler

Sure, Lucinda Schroeder loves animals. But she loves criminology more.

Her first book combines these interests, and the mixed subject matter is so unique that, for the most part, it works. “The Hunt for Justice: The True Story of a Woman Undercover Wildlife Agent” provides a detailed portrait of a world to which few have access. It’s also a bit melodramatic, as books in the “true crime” genre tend to be.

Schroeder’s story, that of a female undercover wildlife agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, straddles genres and addresses the ambivalent moral territory surrounding hunting and the environment.

The tale takes place in 1992, with Schroeder one of only nine women out of 200 special agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Schroeder, at the time living in Wisconsin, longs to take on important undercover wildlife cases, but often is overlooked because of her gender. She finally gets her break when she’s sent to Alaska to infiltrate a large, top-secret hunting service that “guarantees” wealthy American and European hunters exotic animal trophies to take home.

Under the guise of a legitimate big game hunter on a trip with her boyfriend (really an informant), Schroeder takes on a false name and identity to catch the guides illegally hunting bears, Dall sheep and caribou. Indeed, she witnesses hunting on a wildlife preserve, hunters exceeding wildlife limits and cruel, illegal hunting tactics – but she must shoot her share of animals and remain in character to make it out of Alaska alive and prosecute the hunters.

Schroeder’s gender is indeed an important factor in her career and in the undercover Alaska trip. But it’s difficult not to feel it’s overemphasized at times, as even the book’s title and the placement of the adjective “woman” in it brings to mind the days of “Nancy Drew: Girl Detective.” Even the news release lists her height and weight and refers to her as a “petite woman,” almost undermining Schroeder’s accomplishments.

The issue is only one of many in the book that arouse ambivalence.

Another such area is the dramatic style in which the book is written. Schroeder refers to the poachers as “the bad guys” and ends paragraphs with lines like “I listened to Moose’s bravado and wondered how many times he’d cheated to make a kill.”

After Schroeder shoots a giant Dall sheep, she writes, “The death of this magnificent ram would serve a greater purpose by bringing Bowman and his guides to justice. The ram was dead, but the spirit is stronger than the body and I would carry its spirit for as long as I lived.”

On one hand, Schroeder’s language seems warranted, given that her life was in danger and many animals were being killed illegally. But at times it’s hard not to feel her words are over the top, the equivalent of dialogue written for “CSI: Special Poaching Unit.”

Schroeder had to wait until her retirement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service before she could write a book about her biggest case, a case which brought down a significant ring of international poachers. Thus, 12 years passed between her Alaskan “adventure” and her completion of the book.

The years, however, make little difference in the relevance and intrigue of the subject matter she addresses. It is the all-access pass into an odd, insular subculture of sorts – rife with egos, masculinity and a confusing ambivalence regarding wildlife – that makes this book a worthwhile read.

Americans always have had a conflicted relationship with wildlife and the environment, with the big game hunter and national parks advocate Teddy Roosevelt leading the pack at beginning of the 20th century. “The Hunt for Justice” illuminates the unique psychology of big game poachers in a way that will grip hunters and nonhunters alike.

Q&A with Lucinda Schroeder:

Did you have a lifelong interest in animals?

My interest was in criminology, really, in fighting for causes, righting wrongs and helping society any way you can. Wildlife seemed like the ultimate “underdog cause.” What better thing to fight for?

Why do hunters continue to feel the “thrill of the hunt” even when it is no longer a challenge?

Well, the hunters in this situation are tied to it for ego reasons. Most legitimate hunters are in it for the challenge, and modern hunting is actually still quite a challenge. You’ve got to know about the animal you’re hunting, learn about the territory and take on the physical challenge.

These guys (the men in her book) didn’t want to do this. They just wanted to put trophies on the wall. It had nothing to do with love of wildlife or the challenges, it was just about self-gratification.

How far do you think it is ethical to go in championing animal rights?

I am not an animal rights person at all. That’s an extremist, left-wing thing. I’m a conservationist, and hunting actually does that. It contributes millions of dollars a year, if not billions, to wildlife and organizations like the National Wildlife Federation.

At what part of the Alaska trip were you most frightened?

When I landed in camp and encountered someone I knew … and when I was dropped off on the tundra and didn’t know if anyone was ever coming back for me. There was also a very bad feeling when I was accused of being a government plant. … Flying around in those little airplanes was frightening, too.

The moment when I killed the Dall sheep was also very traumatic for me. It wasn’t a part of my personal agenda. It was just something that I was not prepared to think about but something I had to do. It was hard emotionally. But time heals all things.