Natural Disasters 

Every roadkill tells a story

Every roadkill tells a story

By Michael Sims

Among the countless bits of humor floating around on the Internet nowadays is yet another list of answers to the old question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” There are fictional replies from the likes of Plato, Captain Kirk, and Colonel Sanders. The best answer is Ernest Hemingway’s:

“To die. In the rain.”

Such is the unfortunate fate of a great many creatures who try to cross roads. Over the eons, wild animals have evolved strategies to cope with natural dangers, including the teeth and claws of some other beast. But animals have not yet had time to evolve a response to more recent challenges, such as the momentum of a two-ton vehicle traveling at 60 miles per hour. Few animals seem to understand physics.

Every day we drive past animals that are in what might be described as an advanced state of death—the corpses of determined but ignorant creatures who tried and failed to make it across the asphalt. It doesn’t matter whether they girded their furry loins for a dash across I-40 or merely stumbled under a minivan at a stop sign because they have tiny brains. For whatever reason, these creatures joined Nashville’s annual traffic death toll. They can no longer stand up and be counted, so someone must tell their story.

Deer crossing

Why are our fellow creatures out there running around on streets and highways in the first place? Is it sheer ignorance and confusion? Why does an animal cross the road?

Teri Wildt, at the Warner Park Nature Center, tried to answer that question: “I think it tends to go with the mating seasons, and then again when the young begin venturing out on their own,” she said, noting that the Warner Parks “are surrounded by highways where there are a lot of residences. Along Old Hickory Boulevard and Vaughn Road, we have animal populations going back and forth between two areas of the park. There are habitat and food sources on either side of the roads. Because of that, during particular mating seasons—such as deer mating season in October and November—people hit deer. Also, as the coyote pups start to get older and braver, toward the end of the summer, they start venturing back and forth.”

Last November, Wildt herself hit a deer that jumped in front of her vehicle on White’s Creek Pike. The result was $5,000 in damage. “It was quite an experience,” she recalled. “You can be killed if you’re not wearing your seat belt. On country roads at that time of year, you’re a fool to drive fast. On any road, it’s just something you have to be alert to. On Highway 100, driving home in the winter, you’ll see deer feeding four feet from the road, and you just have to be very careful.”

Wildt’s encounter was not uncommon. The American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that in 1995 collisions with animals caused 4 percent of all auto crashes, resulting in the deaths of 111 people. The Foundation suggests ways to avoid causing this particular kind of roadkill:

♦ Pay attention to deer crossing signs, which probably were placed at the sites of previous accidents.

♦ Don’t drive so fast you can’t stop when something enters your headlights.

♦ Honk rather than flash your lights.

♦ Don’t swerve.

♦ Brake until the last moment, then accelerate to raise the car’s hood, to keep the deer from rolling upward and onto your windshield.

Naturally, the species of animals and the number of them killed depend upon the habitat. (In Texas, for example, drivers encounter “possum on the half shell,” as some wit dubbed dead armadillos. In Maine it’s moose.) Although there are deer at Radnor Lake, they are safer than in most places because the road around the lake is usually closed to through traffic. Rangers say the creatures most commonly killed on the road are frogs and chipmunks. Here, too, some of the carnage is seasonal. The death toll rises in spring, when hormone-crazed amphibians are hopping about with lust on their minds.

Frogs and chipmunks are killed on many roads, but they are seen more often on roads with low speed limits. Also, of course, when drivers are traveling at higher speeds, tiny carcasses are less visible than those of larger victims. Other animals show up for a variety of reasons. Carnivores and carrion-feeders may get killed while dining on a grazer that had been seeking greener pastures.

Snakes have their own reasons for showing up so often on highways, and usually it has nothing to do with looking for dinner. Because reptiles don’t have the kind of internal thermostat that keeps birds and mammals warm in all weather, they have to seek out sources of heat. That’s why you see snakes lazing decadently on sun-warmed stone walls. To snakes, a highway is merely a large stone that holds the heat of the day long after nightfall cools the nearby ground. Unfortunately, just as the loss of wetlands has reduced populations of amphibians and water snakes, so has the proliferation of highways reduced the number of land snakes.

Flattened fauna

Roads are a universal fact of life, resulting in roadkill all over the world. People respond in various ways, from dry scientific studies to Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” Articles about the topic show up in periodicals as diverse as Civil Engineering and Just Seventeen. The band Skid Row gave the world a song (and therefore a video) entitled “Roadkill.” On a more practical note, a woman in England lost three cats to speeding cars, and launched a successful campaign to reduce the speed limit in her community.

Another story from England involves Peggy Atherton, an artist. Much of her recent work is dedicated to publicizing the vast number of animals killed on English highways. She insists that the statistics prove England’s reputation for animal-loving is undeserved.

Atherton’s London studio must be an interesting place. She scrapes dead animals (of all sizes, from starlings to badgers) off the roads, carts the flattened corpses home, and proceeds to turn them into artworks. First she dips them in porcelain. Then the firing process in the kiln burns away the mortal remains of the creature. The result is a sort of fancy death mask, recording not how the animal looked alive but in its squashed state. So far the Franklin Mint has expressed no interest in this innovative procedure.

Some science-minded individuals have reacted to roadkill in surprising ways:

Brewster Bartlett, who teaches science at the Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire, runs the Roadkill Project, which assembles and analyzes data about animals killed on roads. Ultimately, his studies, which are sponsored by the National Science Foundation, will help create indexes of the impact of human encroachment on wildlife habitat.

From March to May, roughly 3,000 elementary- and high-school students from 75 schools participate in the project. They e-mail their observations about species, season, weather, habitat, and time of day to Bartlett, who has earned the charming nickname “Dr. Splatt.” (You can find out more through his Web site, at http://earth.simmons.edu/roadkill/roadkill.html.)

After analyzing the first few rounds of data, comprising 3,000 to 6,000 animal deaths annually, Bartlett came up with some interesting results. For one thing, highway deaths seem to rise when Daylight Saving Time begins. The reason is that suddenly more vehicles are on the roads at dawn, a time when the animals had previously been feeding with fewer interruptions.

No one was astonished to find that squirrels are the most common victims of highway homicide. But the second largest category is not opossums or pets, but birds. (Bartlett includes all species of birds in one category.) Because many flattened specimens are unrecognizable, a miscellaneous category is also required. If an animal falls into that group, Bartlett says, “We call it a U.R.P.—an Unidentified Road Pizza.”

The vast number of creatures on the roads inspired a biology professor at Luther College in Iowa to write one of the more bizarre contributions to natural history. In 1987, Roger M. Knutson published Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways. In 88 deadpan pages, Knutson conveys genuine information. He also has a great deal of fun, most of it only moderately tasteless. “This is a book,” he begins, “about animals that, like the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz, are not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead.”

Anyone who has used Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds is familiar with the roadside silhouettes that enable you to identify many species while driving by. Knutson goes a step further, by providing roadtop silhouettes of how creatures look after they have had a fatally close encounter with an automobile. As you may have noticed on your daily commute, most snakes become meaningless squiggles and bats look like Rorschach blots, but some creatures retain identifying features.

Knutson offers professional advice on the identification of roadkill—or “road fauna,” as he calls it. He gives a few pointers on how to be sure of your identification without braving traffic and becoming roadkill yourself. But he advises against forming a collection: “Once you become hooked on flat animals, the urge to collect representative specimens emerges quite naturally. You might even wish to prepare particularly prime examples as wall mounts or paperweights. Resist the temptation!”

The collectors

However, somebody has to do it—collect the corpses, that is. The victims of vehicular homicide eventually return to the earth, but they take their time doing it. The unsightliness, odor, and potential health hazard of lingering roadkill demand that somebody go out there and gather up the flattened fauna.

In Nashville, one of the people who makes his living doing just that is Jack Sawyer, who works for the Refuse Collection Division of Metro Public Works. The city assigns one truck to do nothing but collect dead animals. Sawyer collects a minimum of 10 animals per day, five days a week.

“I’d say that about 70 percent of the animals we pick up are dogs,” Sawyer estimates, “and maybe 20 percent are cats.” The remaining 10 percent consists of deer, raccoons, opossums, and so on. Because squirrels are so small, and so quickly become part of the pavement, Refuse Collection removes them only if they are downtown. “We probably get 10 deer a week,” Sawyer says. “I’d say probably 20 percent of our dogs that we pick up are strays. The rest belong to somebody.”

Sawyer adds, “We don’t pick up from anything that belongs to the state. We just pick up off the city streets.”

The state also employs one man and one vehicle to remove dead animals. Henry Wheeler, at TDOT’s Highway Maintenance office, found it amusing that a reporter would be interested in his job, which he sums up succinctly: “I pick up dead animals all day.”

Is there a problem with the motorists? “Yeah, they kill the animals.”

What are the problems with the animals? “They’re dead.”

Cheryl Teasley, in TDOT’s Highway Maintenance office, says the state picks up “probably 15 to 16 animals a day—maybe three dogs, five or six cats, at least two deer every day. And ’possums, skunks, and groundhogs, of course. We handle all of the interstates and state right-of-ways in Davidson County. Animals are disposed of in the incinerator at Ellington Agricultural Center.”

While the pick-up may be unpleasant enough, another sad aspect of the job falls to Teasley—handling calls from distraught citizens who have lost a pet and who call with a description.

Roadkill Cafe

Bob Newhart fans will recall three popular characters on one of his TV series—Larry, his brother Darrell, and his other brother Darrell. Frequently, those down-home connoisseurs claimed they were on their way to check out the day’s menu at the Roadkill Cafe. Apparently, this notion strikes some people as highly amusing. An astonishing number of books on the market feature roadkill recipes. But life has also imitated art in another way. In 1997, the former head of Ponderosa Steakhouses launched a new chain of restaurants actually called Roadkill Cafes.

The decor sets the mood with chairs made from school bus seats, license plates on the walls, and even a road painted on the floor. Chefs yell “Down, boy!” while pounding the main course. Menus feature appetizing fare such as “Bye-bye Bambi burger” and, inevitably, “Chicken that didn’t make it across the road.”

While the pick-up may be unpleasant enough, another sad aspect of the job falls to Teasley—handling calls from distraught citizens who have lost a pet and who call with a description.

Roadkill Cafe

Bob Newhart fans will recall three popular characters on one of his TV series—Larry, his brother Darrell, and his other brother Darrell. Frequently, those down-home connoisseurs claimed they were on their way to check out the day’s menu at the Roadkill Cafe. Apparently, this notion strikes some people as highly amusing. An astonishing number of books on the market feature roadkill recipes. But life has also imitated art in another way. In 1997, the former head of Ponderosa Steakhouses launched a new chain of restaurants actually called Roadkill Cafes.

The decor sets the mood with chairs made from school bus seats, license plates on the walls, and even a road painted on the floor. Chefs yell “Down, boy!” while pounding the main course. Menus feature appetizing fare such as “Bye-bye Bambi burger” and, inevitably, “Chicken that didn’t make it across the road.”

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