“I must get to the other side. This is my quest, he waits for me”… a bearded armadillo stuck to a Nevada highway by his squashes, tire-marked midsection tells a perplexed chameleon anti-hero Rango. “The Spirit of the West, amigo. Enlightenment! Without it, we are NOTHING.”
To pretend our encounters with wildlife traffic casualties in various states of flattening and decay had been even half as philosophical as Verbinski’s Oscar winning masterpiece of animated filmmaking would be a lie. But on our 9860km Mighty road trip, we did see quite a few, in some areas so many dead kangaroos that it a) put us completely off driving at dusk & night and b) made us think.
In Australia alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an animal is hit and killed by a motor vehicle every second. The number of animals killed by cars in the United States is estimated to be around a million a day.
This of course takes into account smaller animals like mice, rabbits and cane toads (notoriously targeted on purpose by some Aussie drivers – studies using decoys have proven this!) but not millions of insects who end up on people’s windshields a la Men in Black. Yes, insects have feelings, too. Haven’t you seen Pixar’s “Antz”?
But apart from being a bit disgusting, undoubtedly sad and sometimes dangerous, there’s a lot of fun things you can do with road kill.
1) *Sizzle*, *squirt*, “’ere ya go, napkins are over there”
There is a quite prominent group of enthusiasts who enjoy eating your newly quashed squirrel, possum or moose. And not just Texas Tucker and his redneck family – small but established communities in the US, Southern Canada, the UK, Australia and other Western countries prize the freshness, organic status, low cost, high nutrient value and lack of chemical or hormonal agricultural additives “flat meat” (or, depending on where you are, “highway pizza”) offers.
The meat needs to be evaluated: “How fresh is it? How flat is it? Is it NOT a rat?” is a common eligibility test. If thoroughly cooked, it is no different than that obtained through hunting and the practice of preparing road kill for dinner is legal and even encouraged in some states.
In Canada, bears killed by accident may be donated to needy people for their meat, and in Alaska, whilst big game road kill – usually caribou or moose – are considered property of the state, troopers will allow volunteers to butcher a hit animal to donate to churches, needy families and soup kitchens on the condition that “it’s not too smooshed” (official technical term). Around 820 moose are donated each year.
Once you get over the ‘pancake with a tail’ factor, eating road kill makes a lot of sense. Even if establishments such as the annual Marlington West Virginia Cook-off and the Roadkill Café at Mindil beach’s Sunset Market in Darwin serve hunted animals, the variety of different meats encourages a huge diversification of the palette. It’s fun, social and encourages people to realize there are plenty of tasty and healthy alternatives to just eating environmentally hazardous steak. “You kill it, we grill it” and “From your grill to ours” – indeed.
There are a wide variety of road kill cookbooks available to try it out at home. In the UK, where traffic accidents are the number-one killer of badgers, ‘The Roadkill Chef’ Fergus Drennan pioneers foraging cuisine as environmentally responsible. There are few things he avoids, but not because he has “a problem with cats or dogs, …[but they’ve]… always got name tags on their collars” and he can’t quite agree eating them with having two cats of his own.
2) “Hey, Mindy, pull over a sec, there’s a BEAUTY!”
You don’t need to want to actual eat squashed animals if you’re after a bit of fun. Until recently you could buy Kraft Foods “Trolli” brand gummies – “US Road Kill edition” and feast on sweats shaped as partly flattened chickens, squirrels and snakes. They’ve been discontinued but the internet is a treasure chest for that kind of thing.
But if even that’s a little on the insensitive side for you, why not join marine scientist Len Zell on his road trips around Australia with the pure purpose of finding out a huge amount about a regions biodiversity from what ends up at the side of the road.
Rumble strips, which are installed to warn drivers when they drift off the centre of a road are elevated off the tarmac to cause the noise that alerts drivers. They also accumulate road salt which small and large wildlife in search of salt licks will stop at oblivious of the risk of being hit. Roads in Oz are built to have storm rainwater run off them, meaning that the sides of roads often get the best water supply away from creeks and vegetation attracts animals that feed on it.
You can tell a lot about an area’s local species numbers, their general health and even changes in a species makeup. American cliff swallows, as the name suggests, swallow their insect pray whole. They also like cliffs, whether naturally formed or artificial in the shape of bridge pylons.
A pair of scientists from the University of Tulsa have been studying cliff swallows dating back 30 years with the help of their relatively high death rate due to the proximity of the highway to their nesting grounds. They have found that an un-proportionately high amount of killed swallows has longer and slower wings, meaning that shorter-winged birds are now in the clear majority when nesting under bridges.
Interestingly over the 30 year study period, the amount of birds killed has gone down whilst the overall population has increased. That’s evolution for you right there, nut shelled into 30 years. Darwin would be proud of our Dragon’s favorite bird.
3) “3am emergency callout boys and girls, let’s go get stuffed!”
Almost as secretive as the illuminati, and as skilled as lumberjack ninjas, a group of highly reactive and collectively minded people are getting kicks out of hearing about our furry forest friends getting bulldozed. The occupation of this sophisticated group of snatch-n-grabbers? Taxidermists.
Now being adopted by the o-so-amazeballs hipster enclave, Taxidermy has been around a long time and its need for fresh animal bodies is fed by hunting, foraging and picking up unfortunate critters from the nation’s highways. What may sound macabre can be a genuinely beautiful art, lately with increasing numbers of women involved.
Artist Kimberly Witham has had some interesting run ins with the police as she explains the contents of her car’s boot: “a pair of running shoes, 10 jars of pickle, a case of Leinenkugel’s Red Lager, a dead mallard, stuffed fox, dead pheasant, bag of deer antlers and a kit equipped for a serial killer”.
Roadkill can also be the only chance for avid stuffers to get hold of endangered species that you can’t hunt and kill. Some countries such as Germany require you to report and register every hit animal with the local forestry department but getting to a carcass and registering before others do is a great opportunity to stuff something unusual. For bigger animals, trucks and strength in numbers are needed, so niche networks have formed across regions who help each other find and collect exciting specimen.
4) “Kaaaa-ching and sing, sing, sing”
Finally, if you’re hard up for cash, you can do the environment, wildlife and council a favour by adopting the rather unglamorous job of road kill collector. Whilst you’re on call 24/7 and especially active at night when most accidents happen, you can rest assured that you’re clearing the roads from hazards for other drivers and making sure scavenging animals (such as possums or birds of prey) eat the carcasses in the safety of a nearby forest as opposed to on the centre strip.
And when you get tired of scraping furry pancakes off tarmac in the rain at 3am, make sure you’re in Pennsylvania as you’ll get paid around $40 per deer, and as an average of 1800 deer are hit every year, you’ll be pocketing a salary of $72000. Not bad at all.
If all else fails, why not be creative and write a song along the lines of Louden Wainwright The Third’s 1972 smash hit “Dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinkin’ to high Heaven!” You’ll end up entertaining the nation way better than X Factor ever could.
Interesting fact of the day: it has emerged after the writing of this blog post that our Rat’s mum has met Mr Wainwright and enjoyed a live rendition, so make sure to add it to your next BBQ playlist. To find out all about cute critters they’re still alive, check out our definitive guide to Australia’s batshit crazy animals.