Casualties of the car culture

Casualties of the car culture

It"s 1977 and I"m a 7-year-old hauling ass on my bicycle so I"m not late for dinner. The wind feels great on my face as I pedal so fast the gears can"t catch up. I"m riding through rural Carmel, when there was such a place.
The author marks the passing of a possum family.
Suddenly, a brown station wagon heading toward me crashes into a yellow Labrador retriever, sending it flying into the air. When it lands, its skull is cracked open, exposing blood and brains dribbling into its fur. At home, I scream and hide under my bed, unable to deal with the image I"ve just described. Terrified, I refuse to talk as my worried siblings hold vigil around my bed. Twenty-five years later, I still get upset every time I see a spent life on the side of the road. Around 71st and Keystone, I see a squirrel plastered between two lanes. As I look back in the rearview mirror, I notice its tail twitching back and forth like a metronome. I pray that it"s only the wind, or the whoosh of each car passing by. I commute from my home in Bloomington to my job in Indy, and see a lot of dead animals along the way. Last week"s death toll includes a coyote, several deer, a red-haired Chow and squirrels that have seen so many tires they look like strips of beef jerky. There is a large dead turtle on the side of 37 South. I pound my fist against the steering wheel. Talking about roadkill I pull into the Pilot station at the exit for 37 South and I"m in trucker heaven. I see one in a leather ballcap wearing a T-shirt with an American flag on the front, emerging from his cab. The trucker is from Kansas and hauls for Midwest Coast Transport. He tells me the most dangerous thing about hitting an animal is "if you rip an airline." He points at some black wires hanging from the bottom of his truck. "If they tear those up you lose air and then you"ll lose your brakes." He tells me deer usually do the most damage to trucks, costing some truckers anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars. He"s never hit a deer because he"s got "these deals that scare "em away. You can get "em for about a buck 98." The trucker points out two kinds of whistles on his truck, one that scares away deer and one that deters elk. "Sometimes the deer look up and freeze when they hear the whistle, and other times they just take off running." He also works on cars and trucks, so he"s seen first-hand what can happen to them. He points out how his bumper doesn"t have a big metal grille on the front like another truck in the lot, so he"s not as safe if he hits something. "When they first came out with the Chevy Cavalier, the way the bumper was, it would funnel deer right into the windshield." When he talks, I see a brown tooth dangling like an upside-down golf tee. It is so porous that I can almost see into the center of it. I fight the urge to reach out and pull it. Driving home, heady from my interview with the trucker, I feel an adrenaline rush because I like talking to strangers about roadkill. I crank Sheryl Crow"s "Leaving Las Vegas" while taking notice of the drivers wedged on either side of me in the rush-hour traffic. Everyone"s got their windows rolled up, so I turn it up a few more decibels. I love this song because it"s raw, unbridled, unpretentious chick rock, and it takes me to a place where for a moment I"m a rock diva. I imagine myself grabbing the microphone. My arms are cut like Angela Bassett"s in What"s Love Got to Do with It, and I have the ass I had when I was 17. Then, in my peripheral vision, I see a dead baby possum on the left side of the road. Its jaws are locked open, baring a mouth full of sharp teeth, as if it died trying to bite the car that hit it. Within seconds, I see another one on the right side of the road. This one"s starting to decompose. It looks so damn tired, and I"m jolted back into the reality of being me, a radar for roadkill on my way home to fix dinner. The more I talk to people about roadkill, the more I realize that other people want to share their experiences. I shoot my brother an e-mail. He responds with memories of seeing rat roadkill on streets near Central Park when he lived in New York City. Now that he lives outside of Denver, he sees mostly dead elk, and sometimes fox, antelope and prairie dogs. My sister hears through the family grapevine that I"m writing a story on roadkill. She"s hurt that I haven"t asked her about her take on it. She tries to come across like she"s kidding, but there"s an edge in her voice. She"s the oldest, an ex-nun turned Carmel housewife, and not someone who easily takes "no" for an answer. I look up at her from behind my beer as she recalls hitting a deer with a four-door sedan. "I was driving one of those K-cars and it did a lot of damage. Like it couldn"t wait three more seconds until I passed." She pauses. "It wasn"t dead either. We had to wait for the ranger to come shoot it." She explains that a crowd formed and people were crying while the baby deer was writhing in pain. "Its front legs were clearly broken, but you could tell it was trying to crawl away." She tells me she was frustrated because it had all this acreage and it picked that particular moment to jump right in front of her car. She was paranoid for a while, but now her husband Vinnie drives everywhere while she watches the sides of the road. I visit a therapist to get a psychological perspective. Paul George, a licensed social worker and therapist working on the Northeastside of Indianapolis, explains that roadkill effects both children and adults. "Roadkill is a traumatic experience for children," he says. "It sends the message that life isn"t important, and that cars are." He adds that one thing we can do as parents is to brake in exaggeration when it is safe to do so. He says adults tend to disassociate with roadkill because we see so much of it. There are exceptions. He admits that when he sees dogs or cats, he is bothered because he has dogs and cats at home. He also feels differently about deer because of the mythology around them, and because of their eyes. George has expertise in dealing with trauma. He explains, "Subtle or not so subtle linkages between "small" and not-so-small traumas from the past can lead to a big emotional response to what seems like a small event in the present. When we have this response to something in the company of other people who have not had the same experiences, they may think we"re nuts. In reality, it"s a normal reaction of the accumulated responses; pain that is linked together by the theme." Driving home from roadkill therapy, I realize that deer eyes get me, too. I live in a rural area. Sometimes I come home in the evening to find four or five deer hanging out in the front yard. I"m immediately drawn in by their glassy, marble-looking eyes. They"ve got this look of innocence and wisdom about them, like bright-eyed children with old souls. Eating roadkill In the morning, I visit Chet Hall, the manager of the southern subdistrict of the Indiana Department of Transportation. Hall tells me that Southern Indiana has the highest population of deer in the state. On average, his crew picks up two to three deer carcasses per day. This morning, his team has already picked up five or six deer. It is Monday, so this makes sense. The highway crew has a four-day work week, so unless there"s an emergency between Friday and Monday, any dead animals are going to have to wait to be hauled off. I wonder if more deer are hit at dusk, or during rush-hour traffic. According to Hall, there is no way to predict when a deer is going to jump in front of a car. Incidents of deer killed by cars increase during certain times of the year. In October, when people flock to Southern Indiana to check out the leaves, mating season begins. It overlaps with hunting season. While we are enjoying the blessings of nature, deer struggle to propagate while dodging shotgun shells and SUVs. As I drive away from Hall, I recall how, several years ago, a controversy sparked over what to do about deer overpopulation in Brown County. There were too many skinny deer and people were afraid to drive. An extended hunting season was proposed to thin out the population and hunting would also be allowed in Brown County State Park. Members of Parks and Recreation, animal interest groups, hunters and locals gathered at the high school auditorium in Brown County. The atmosphere was tense. When a female veterinarian got up to speak, a man in hunting fatigues two rows in front of me stood up, revealing a generous butt crack, and yelled in a scratchy, pissed-off voice, "Sit down, skirt!" I was mortified, so I left. I check in with my husband, who is traveling on business with Paul Leach, an English friend who explains how England"s passion for hunting also translates into a higher rate of roadkill. Over the years, hunting has wiped out large predators, resulting in an imbalance in the ecosystem, which causes a high rate of small roadkill - especially hedgehogs. Hedgehogs look like porcupines, and have a similar rough exterior, but what Mother Nature intends for natural protection is no match for the automobile. There are even English candies available that come in a little box containing tiny chocolate replicas of smashed-up hedgehogs. Leach says that homeless people in England collect hedgehog roadkill and take it into the woods, where they smother it in clay and bake it over an open fire. When the clay is hardened, they peel off the outer layer, removing the thorny quills. Dinner is served. In Monroe County, people can get on a waiting list for venison at the local Sheriff"s Department. There is also a group of Bloomington people eating fresh roadkill as part of a sustainable living lifestyle. It"s the ultimate form of recycling. With the threat of I-69 turning Southern Indiana into asphalt and gas stations, they should probably get meat freezers to store all the I-69 delicacies they"ll be gathering. I can imagine "Roadkill Rod," one such connoisseur, sharpening up his knives at the prospect. Rod is a charismatic guy - he looks like a cross between Paul Bunyan and Rip Van Winkle, and has been a Monroe County resident for the past 17 years. When we hook up at the Community Kitchen, he starts off talking about how eating roadkill is similar to dumpster-diving, which he also does as part of his hunter/gatherer lifestyle. He"s on that waiting list at the Sheriff"s Department, but the two times his name came up in the queue, he already had plenty of deer on hand. He picks up "better than one deer per year." Depending on the size of deer he picks up, he can glean anywhere from 20-200 pounds of meat. The best-tasting deer, he says, are the young ones. He explains that roadkill deer are no dirtier than hunted deer, which are shot and dragged and driven around before they are prepared. Rod takes the carcass and skins it, cuts it up and stores it. Another roadkill carcass he likes is groundhog, which he says tastes like roast beef. Rod doesn"t just eat the roadkill, he saves the bones and antlers for his artwork. He makes knives. He can custom-make a knife and the client can pick out an antler from which he"ll construct the handle. Deer hides are used to make the covering of drums. His motives for reusing roadkill for sustenance and art are as strong as the most die-hard vegan"s would be about not eating meat. He explains, "As a culture, if we were more open to what nature gives to us, rather than to hunt, kill, plant and till, and people would learn more respect, we"d be more in tune and in touch. We"d still have to work for our food in some way, but we"d see roadkill as animals instead of a gross mess." It"s closing time at the Community Kitchen. Everyone has cleared out, and chairs are stacked up all around us, but no one asks us to leave. I follow Rod out of the building and I"m kind of sorry to see him go. Composting roadkill In the morning, I head out to the roadkill compost in Martinsville. I see a small doe on the south side of Highway 37. She"s been there a while. No one is going to be taking her home for dinner. Her hair is matted and it looks like the slick coat of a newborn cow. Her neck is gracefully craned back the way deer do when they are reaching for vegetation or bounding through the woods. Like most roadkill I see, she is conveniently pushed off to the side of the road. Law enforcement officers move roadkill out of the path of oncoming traffic to prevent dangerous situations until the highway department can gather the carcasses. That"s why sometimes you see a bloodstain in one area of the road and the animal off to the shoulder in another. Heading east on 252, I am distracted by the clear blue sky. I pass a new-looking subdivision. One property on a corner lot has two cows and several goats in the backyard. There is an old graveyard off to the left. If you get to the graveyard, you"ve gone too far, I remember Les Kinnett, the unit foreman I"m about to meet, saying when I confirmed directions with him. Inside the small building, Kinnett explains that he is responsible for highway maintenance for Morgan, Johnson and part of Marion counties. He works with 11 employees who help keep the roads clean and safe. At any given time, a call could come in reporting roadkill. Calls come from a variety of sources, including property owners, the sheriff or drivers on cell phones. Kinnett explains how roadkill cleanup works for his district. "If the carcass is in a rural area, it will be left for the buzzards and coyotes." There are requirements for how deep roadkill must be buried if it is within a certain distance of residential or retail property. Because of the development of rural areas, it is easier to take roadkill to the compost than to relocate the bodies to a place where Mother Nature can take care of it. Those areas are becoming harder and harder to find. This is the first year this particular compost has been in operation. Similar facilities are appearing all over Indiana. Over the course of the past three months, a finished cycle of dead animals has been completed. They are unidentifiable now, disintegrated into a mix of sawdust that looks like mulch. Not only does it take time to properly compost an animal, it takes a degree of precision. To achieve the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio necessary for decomposition, 100 cubic feet of sawdust must be used for 1,000 pounds of carcass. Temperatures within the compost pile at any given time range from 130-160 degrees. There are five cement bays approximately 7 feet high. An animal will reach second stage composting by the third bay, and after a period of three months, the pile will be ready for reuse. The compost will either be "mixed with a little fresh sawdust or a little more nitrogen," Kinnett explains. From there, it is reused to recycle other animals, or for things like fertilizer. Kinnett tries to get the sawdust for free, but it"s becoming more of a commodity. It is used to make the insides of animal bedding, among other things. As he explains these things, I decide I want a closer look at the composting bays. I get that sick feeling in my stomach, like when you walk up to the casket of a loved one. I had the feeling I was saying good-bye to something. Kinnett points out a deer antler in the second bin. I put on my glasses, but I can"t find the antler in the rubble. Then I peek into the first bin and there"s a black dog, not so different-looking than one of my own. I can tell from his ribs and the bones around his tail that he died hungry. He has just been brought in this morning. Kinnett points out that it doesn"t smell. It"s a cool morning. Heat has a lot to do with how a worker may feel on the job. "They do vomit when it gets really hot out," Kinnett says. There"s a live dog around, a stray Kinnett calls "sawmill dog." Sawmill dog is always hanging around the unit, and the guys help keep her fed from their own lunches despite the nuisance she can be. Kinnett cracks a smile and explains, "She drug half a deer carcass up here by the driveway when I come in this morning." The dog is also known for dragging animal parts out of the compost bin to neighbors" yards and leaving them there. He suspects coyotes get in the compost, too, but sawmill dog gets most of the blame. I thank Kinnett for his time and tell him I think that his crew is doing a good job cleaning up the roads. I"m sincere about it, too, as my mind flashes to various roadkill scenes in Indianapolis, where I have seen animals decompose directly onto the road. I drive back to the cemetery before heading home from the compost. I see a large white statue and think it is St. Francis, but it"s Jesus. His arms are outstretched with Mathew 11:28 inscribed at the bottom of his feet. "Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest." The statue"s eyes are sculpted like two white marbles. They seem to contain a message. Whatever it is, it"s so powerful it makes me turn away. In the car, I turn on the song "Country Road" by James Taylor. Normally, I would sing along, but something is bothering me. I have the feeling that something is not finished. Then it hits me. I call Kinnett from my cell phone and ask him if he ever gets sad about the animals. "It can be hard if it"s a family pet, and you know the family and there is children involved, but no, I don"t get sad. I"m not sentimental that way. Like I said - when it gets really hot it can be gruesome, especially if it is really mangled." As I mull this over for the rest of the way home, I realize that I didn"t see the small doe I saw on the way to the compost. Someone from Kinnett"s crew had already removed her from the side of the road. Incinerating roadkill While the compost in Martinsville takes care of a small portion of Indiana roadkill, other roadkill is incinerated. I contact Tom Vanderpool, the environmental coordinator for the Greenfield District in Anderson, and he"s happy to show me one such incinerator. He introduces it to me with pride, like someone showing off a new car. The first feature he describes is the three-sided aluminum shelter around the incinerator. It"s the only one Vanderpool knows of with an enclosure around it. He explains, "It works to prolong the life of the incinerator, aesthetically it looks better and it provides protection for the crew." This is one of three incinerators put into operation by the subdistrict over the last year. In less than three months, they have incinerated 20-30 deer carcasses alone at this location. Vanderpool explains that cleaning up roadkill is "a service they provide and incinerating the carcasses is environmentally friendly, and a cleaner, simpler and more economical solution than composting." While his subdistrict has one compost site, he does not plan on investing in others. Incinerators are purchased from a company in Berne, Ind., for around $6,500, which is approximately equivalent to the start-up cost of a composting site. Yet the cost per carcass is cheaper than composting, Vanderpool explains. "With composting, you have to continue to bury carcasses with sawdust, and the cost to run the incinerator is only $5-$6 worth of diesel fuel." Before purchasing the incinerator, the crew buried most of the roadkill. On average, it would take two men to haul a deer and five or six to bury it. They started hitting bones with their shovels, and the incinerator has been a good solution for them. They still bury the smaller roadkill. In cases where the roadkill is really mangled and stuck to the road, they cover it with lime, a substance that breaks it down until there is nothing left. With over 20 counties in this territory, the simplest process for taking care of roadkill is preferred. I peer in at the contents of the incinerator and I ask what the green paint is from on a deer"s back where his fur is missing. Vanderpool tells me it is gangrene from where the animal was hit and the skin is decomposing. This particular carcass was picked up in Rushville earlier in the week and since the incinerator was not full until this morning, he has been sitting awhile. It"s time to burn the animals. I look in one last time and all I can see is the back of the deer. His head is tucked underneath. I see a hoof sticking out, and a raccoon lying next to him. The lid is closed and Vanderpool explains what to expect: "There is a singed hair smell, and then it"s like a barbecue." The incinerator makes a small hiss and some hair blows out of it. Within eight minutes it has reached 1,048 degrees and when it reaches 1,100 degrees, it will be at the optimal temperature necessary for incinerating. I smell burning fur and taste something unfamiliar in my mouth. It takes one hour of burning for 70 pounds of carcass. This load will burn for approximately three hours. Then, there will be nothing left but ashes. The ashes from four or five deer, or the equivalent of that, will fill a couple of 5-gallon buckets. The ashes resemble small pieces of paper until they are touched, and then they fall apart into powder. After the ashes are bagged, they are hauled to the blue dumpsters across the lot. Vanderpool points out that there are no gases going into the air. "The after-burner meets air quality standards. It runs for a half hour after the incinerator shuts off, effectively burning off any gases emitted in the process." I look up into the sky above the incinerator. When I first arrived, the skies threatened rain, but the clouds are parting between streaks of sunlight as if the heavens are opening up, welcoming the animals. On the road to Florida While navigating the information highway, I discover something wonderful about roadkill: People are trying to prevent it. Scientists, biologists, engineers and some state divisions of the Department of Transportation are assisting wildlife in crossing roads safely. There"s a bear underpass built into the highway in a bear roadkill "hotspot" in Florida. North of there is an ecopassage that diverts amphibians and reptiles off of the highway and into underground passages. I need to see these. Driving down Highway 23 toward Hilton Head Island, where we"ll spend a few days on the way to Florida, I can smell the paper mills blowing downwind of Savannah and the salt water in the marshy lagoons. I start looking for alligators, hoping I"ll see a live one, but what I mostly see are squished armadillos. Their striped shells are broken into scattered fragments. I meet a retired state trooper from Maryland named Bob, who now works security at the hotel. He"s worked fatality scenes where deer have come through windshields. He knows someone who has hit a small bear in Florida. I tell him that"s where we"re going, to see the bear underpass near the Wekiva River basin in Central Florida. The speed limit along I-95 is 70 mph, and most people are doing 80-90 mph. The sides of the road are littered with trash, blown tires and roadkill. We cross a small body of water called Turtle Creek. Before we even get to the mouth of the bridge, I see dead turtles strewn all over the road. Just outside of Savannah, we see a Pitbull on the side of the road. Several vultures are eating it. My husband inspects the carcass and reports that Pitbull"s eyes are gone. After being blown around by semis, and tailgated most of the way by vehicles with spoilers larger than the cars themselves, we"re glad to get off of the interstate. We exit onto I-4 in search of the bear underpass on S.R.-46. The gates to the underpass will be closing soon, to prevent the bears from accessing the roads at night. A 10-foot-high chain link fence borders the road on both sides of the underpass. The road rises in the area of the structure, and there is no way to see the structure itself, unless you go into a restricted area, which we do. We don"t see any bears, so I try to imagine them crossing. My husband snaps a few photos and we get back in our van. Before now, I thought the chance of seeing a bear in Florida was like seeing an alligator in Colorado. Unfortunately, bear roadkill has been on a dramatic rise in Florida over the last decade. In 2001 alone, 105 bears were killed on Florida roads. Our next stop is the Paynes Prairie ecopassage on U.S.-441. We"ve got just enough time to get there before the sun sets. This section of road just outside of Gainesville "has more documented roadkills than any other road segment in the state," according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The cement wall runs along both sides of the road. There"s a 6-inch lip at the top that diverts climbing wildlife such as snakes, alligators and turtles and jumping wildlife such as bobcats down into several culverts below. These openings provide safe access to the other side of the road. We get pulled over in Waldo, Fla. The officer comes over to my window and says, "I"m talking to you from over here because I feel safer on this side." He explains to my husband that he was clocked exceeding the speed limit by 16 miles an hour. I interrupt, saying, "I have a quick question. What happens to the roadkill around here?" The officer says all he knows is the same company in charge of picking up people"s trash used to be responsible for it. "Don"t know if that"s still how it is or not. I think they take it out to the landfields." He adds, "I"ll tell you what though; I"ve hit two deer in the same spot coming home from work." The trip to see the advances in wildlife safety is worth it. The ingenuity behind these projects, and the passion to make a difference that drives them, are the only positive aspects of roadkill. Unfortunately, the most lasting impression I get from the trip is this: We are on Route 9 outside of Shelbyville. It"s the last leg of our journey. We notice a possum on the side of the road and stop one last time. We had crosses made up for some of the animals and stuck one in the ground next to the possum. That"s when I notice she"s clinging to three babies - all of them roadkill. What you can do I drove an estimated 5,000 miles in search of answers about roadkill, and realize that it"s more than a metaphor for urban sprawl, or the result of habitat fragmentation and loss. Thinking about roadkill illuminates things that are both wonderful and terrible about our culture. I have begun to examine the way I live. What can I give up? This is hard. In the words of John Muir, "When you try to change a single thing, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe." ï Find alternatives to driving when it is practical. ï Ride share. ï Don"t speed. ï Spay/neuter your pets. ï Report strays. ï Keep collars on your pets. ï Keep pets fenced in at home and on leashes when walking in public areas. ï Put deer whistles on your car. Note: According to Randy Mason, instructor for AAA Professional Driving School of Indianapolis, there is not conclusive evidence that deer whistles are effective. ï Support local organizations with an interest in land conservation, such as Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR), ï Watch for wildlife at dusk when many animals look for food, and at night when many nocturnal animals are active. ï Be especially wary of deer during harvesting, hunting and mating season, when deer are most likely to get spooked. (In Indiana, roughly Octoberñlate December.) ï Support wildlife friendly roads: "Under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA-21, Federal Highway Administration funding support is available for wildlife crossings on both new and existing roads. Thanks to TEA-21 and an expanded "Transportation Enhancements" category, states and communities can get help not only for crossing structures but for habitat connectivity measures." ï To report a dead animal on public property, call the Mayor"s Action Center at 327-4622 (No. 4).

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