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USF’s body farm to move on to greener pastures

USF’s latest research endeavor might be dead in its initial Lithia location, but the university plans to keep the project alive at another site.

Eric Eisenberg, dean of the USF College of Arts and Sciences, said he expects USF to begin looking for a new home for the Facility for Outdoor Experimental Research and Training (FORT) in the next two to three months.

“I’m confident we’re going to find a place to put this (facility), probably in the next few months,” Eisenberg said. “We’re anxious to get this thing built.”

Though USF originally planned to establish FORT at the training center for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Lithia, about 45 minutes East of campus, many local residents voiced numerous concerns at a recent public meeting about FORT, a facility similar to what is referred to as a “body farm” in states like Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado and Texas.

USF’s research would be a joint project between the USF Department of Anthropology and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. The resulting facility would be focused on analyzing the effects of Florida’s environment on the decomposition of corpses left outdoors.

While the training center is half a mile from the nearest home and is guarded by a police officer who lives there, many residents said they were worried about decreased property values, a widespread odor, nearby water contamination and even local animals and pests developing a taste for human flesh. 

Similar facilities already exist in Tennessee, Texas, Illinois and Colorado, and Eisenberg said that one in Florida would specifically examine the decomposition effects of Florida’s unique environment. As a result, USF researchers and students could help state law enforcement officials solve more crimes involving human victims left outdoors. 

Lithia residents, however, were rather opposed to a nearby body farm, and Eisenberg said USF ultimately decided to relocate the facility in order to maintain a healthy relationship with the community.

“If (USF) were a corporation, or if we were a private individual, we could do a calculation (on)…resistance…(and) support (and) push it through and hope that it all works out,” he said. “But we’re a public university, and…we want to have a good relationship with the community. The moment the community began to point fingers at us and say, ‘You’re forcing this on us, USF,’ … we took that very seriously, and that’s why we acted so fast.”

It is this feeling of being targeted as an experimental test bed, Eisenberg said, that frustrated Lithia residents more than actually planning to place a body farm in their neighborhoods. He claimed many citizens and local politicians viewed this project as “the last straw” due to their prior experiences with government and their involvement with previous research projects.

“Most of the comments (at the public meeting) were along the lines of, ‘This part of the county has stuff dropped on it without input, and this is the latest and last straw (of forced projects),’” Eisenberg said. “The majority of people were not objecting to the facility. They were objecting to having something thrust on them which they hadn’t had a chance to really consider.”

Eisenberg said the reason why Lithia residents were widely unaware of the facility before the public meeting was due to a communication breakdown between the university, Hillsborough County and local citizens and politicians. 

He added that USF researchers who knew of the planned FORT location assumed Lithia’s community and key politicians also knew about the body farm solely because the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office was aware of it. Information about the project did not reach those in Lithia through the sheriff’s office, however, making USF’s public meeting with local residents the first opportunity for Lithia’s community to provide feedback.

“We didn’t go to that public meeting thinking that the process (of establishing FORT) was by any means over,” Eisenberg said. “We were seeing it as the beginning of a conversation with the (Lithia) citizens.”

In deciding FORT’s next location, Eisenberg said USF will proceed even more cautiously with the implementation process and will immediately hold a public meeting if the chosen location is on county land. He said the lesson USF can learn from Lithia is that the university will want to have a future community’s approval before moving to implement the project.

Deciding on and securing an appropriate site for a body farm is a process all to its own, and Eisenberg said USF has been planning the project for about a year now.

First, the facility requires an expanse of land — the Lithia location, for example, would have been two acres. This land must also mirror the environmental conditions of the area of study in order to produce accurate results, which is why Florida researchers would not be able to use much of the data collected from a body farm in Texas. 

Researchers must also develop a security system for the facility, including physical fencing, security cameras and deciding how the facility’s cadavers would be transported. If the chosen land is owned by a county, like the Lithia location, that county must be a party to the implementation of the project. The county’s involvement in the project also includes local politicians and citizens, and researchers must consider their thoughts as well. 

The lead researcher for the project, Erin Kimmerle of USF’s anthropology department, declined an interview with The Oracle on the matter.

Had the Lithia location not been owned by the county, Eisenberg said, the university would likely have been able to move forward with establishing FORT. This gives USF a strong reason to consider a private or corporate site for the project as well.

So far, several people have already contacted USF with potential offers to house the facility, including private and corporate lands. While Eisenberg said negotiations with the individuals and entities involved will definitely take place, the exact details on who and where remain uncertain.

“I would love to be able to say to you, ‘There are five sites,’ and you’d make a nice chart, but we’re not there yet,” he said.  “At this point we’re just beginning to figure out what kind of alternatives might be available.”