There’s not much that’s sweeter, after the hot, muggy dog days of summer, than opening your windows to a cool breeze of country-fresh air, except when that breeze carries the stench of carrion. Unless you’re a turkey vulture, there’s not much to love about dead stuff that’s been overcooked on hot pavement. But roadkill is a reality on country roads, so it’s good to know how to deal with it.
For drivers. After hitting an animal, find a safe place to pull over and catch your breath. Note the location: For example, press and hold the dot that notes your location in Google Maps and copy the GPS coordinates that come up in the search bar. Consider the potential damage to your vehicle that might require an insurance claim, which requires an accident report. Consider potential hazards to other motorists. If you have cell service, report the collision to the county sheriff’s office. If you plan to continue driving, text your planned route and ETA to a trusted contact in case damage to the vehicle causes problems down the road. And consider what other problems might arise as a consequence of the situation. For example, a driver who swerved to miss a deer and ran off the road was able to drive out of the ditch. But his car took out the electric fence for a horse pasture, and horses on the highway are a huge hazard.
For residents. Friends of ours can tell when someone hits a skunk even before the smell wafts their way. They know from the sound of tires hitting the centerline and fog line rumble strips as drivers swerve to avoid running over the remains. Sometimes we hear the screech of tires or a horn. Mostly, though, we discover the deceased when we go to our mailbox or when the dog comes home with a snootful of porcupine quills.
Who cleans up? While state laws vary, in Wisconsin local government is charged with the removal of large carcasses on the road or the shoulder if they could present a hazard to motorists. So for a large animal, it’s advisable to notify your county sheriff’s department so they can assess the situation. But things can get pretty whiffy before the county highway department or its carcass contractor shows up. So able-bodied people with rural addresses tend to manage mostly on their own for smaller critters or with help from neighbors for bigger ones.
First things first. “Managing” often begins by determining (cautiously) whether the animal is alive. A wounded animal can be dangerous and unpredictable. Non-fatal injuries to protected species like raptors might require a call to a wildlife rehabilitation facility for guidance. Sometimes, though, the kindest thing may be to put it out of its misery. That job may fall to a deputy if you advise law enforcement that the animal appears to be fatally injured and suffering. Don’t be surprised if the driver of the truck that pulls over to see if you need help is carrying a firearm when they approach. Also, don’t be surprised if a gun-toting Good Samaritan has to blow their nose and wipe their eyes after ending an animal’s suffering.
Tools of the trade. For most small critters, we manage removal from the road with just a shovel and perhaps a nudge from a booted toe. The shovel is convenient for carrying a small animal to a final resting place, digging a hole, and covering the carcass with enough dirt to tamp down the smell. Sometimes a rake is handy for gathering up parts – especially when you don’t want your boots to smell of skunk. It may be easier to tip a carcass into a wheelbarrow than lift it into the bed of a pickup truck. For handling remains you will want gloves – especially where Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) or other potential contagions may be present. Webbing straps or ropes and pulleys may be helpful when you need to get a larger animal into a truck bed to haul far enough away to let scavengers manage clean-up. When there’s snow on the ground, a sled can be used. Calling a neighbor with an end-loader is always an option.
Doggone it. As soon as we know there’s roadkill by our place we assume our dog will follow her nose to it. So for her own safety, she gets put inside while we gather up what’s needed to manage the mess. But sometimes it’s a bigger job. This summer, a yearling deer was hit by our house. When my husband went out to remove it from the road, it was too heavy for him to lift. So he roped it to the trailer hitch on the pickup and dragged it back towards the woods. We kept a close eye on the dog for a few days to keep her from following the scent trail. Eventually, though, a breeze wafted the irresistible aroma of decay across a 40-acre field. We couldn’t smell it but apparently she did. We let her out one morning to do her business and she disappeared. While I looked around the rest of our property, Bill drove back to where he had left the carcass. It was gone. Not scattered as it would be by coyotes, but completely gone – as if dragged off by a bear with no inclination to share. And there was our dog, rolling in the residue, pleased to show off her putrid perfume. She got two baths that morning and we put a brand new air freshener in Bill’s truck. Never underestimate the distance at which a dog can pick up a foul scent when you have company coming.
But is it a bad thing? You may not think so, but sometimes the stench can be a good thing. (Maybe skip this part unless you really want to know.) Some people who raise chickens or ducks ask friends to be on the lookout for roadkill of the fox or coyote persuasion. Nailed up nearby, a rotting carcass acts as a deterrent to other predators. And the birds appreciate the maggots that drop as nature takes its course.
Other uses. I know basketmakers who are happy to pick up roadkilled porcupines to harvest their quills. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of fly tiers picking up roadkill to use in making fishing lures. Rendering plants that accept roadkill may convert the fats and proteins into any number of components for products present in your home. Folks use roadkill to feed dogs and other animals. Wildlife rehabilitation facilities feed it to their patients.
What about people’s food? I do know people who will pick up roadkill to eat, but generally, they want to know the time and manner of death. It’s a lot of work to butcher something only to find extensive blunt force trauma has spoiled the meat. And unless you’re willing to do the work yourself you might as well pass when the deputy asks if you want the carcass. If you do want to claim a car-killed deer, bear, or turkey in Wisconsin, you must register it with the DNR and comply with CWD-related transportation rules.
Everyone has a story. Out in the yonder, you can hardly swing a polecat and not hit someone with a story to tell about rural roadkill. A friend told me how, as a rural law enforcement officer, they saw squad cars wrecked from hitting large raccoons at high speed. Another told me how their family played a roadkill variation on the License Plate Game when traveling. Folks do actually celebrate (sort of) when dead skunks reappear on northern roads after winter hibernation – a sure sign of spring. In a game of Would You Rather, I once heard someone ask for a preference between hitting a skunk or an armadillo. None of the players mentioned not leaving the carcass to stink up the neighborhood.
But since everyone has a story, here’s mine: Years ago, my husband and I ran a whitewater canoe and kayak school at this location. One busy Saturday evening, a young couple came into our shop. Both were crying. The young man found his voice first. “Do you have a p-p-p-pig?” So unexpected was the question that I couldn’t think how to respond. So he repeated it. “Do you have a p-p-p-pig? We just hit one with our car.” Sure enough, there was a deceased potbellied pig in our ditch. The young couple was uninjured in the collision, and trying to do the responsible thing. We could tell they were greatly relieved to learn it wasn’t our beloved pet they hit. It took several calls to learn which of our neighbors did, in fact, have a pet pig that got out. By that time, one of our customers had asked Bill, “What are you going to do with it?” – a question almost as surprising that night as “Do you have a p-p-p-pig?” That customer, as it turned out, raised free-range turkeys in another part of the state. Bill helped him load his whitewater purchases and a dead potbellied pig into his van. Someone may have made a bad joke about that poultry eating high on the hog.
Roadside abandonment. Hauling away roadkill is probably less common in rural areas than simply letting nature take its course – preferably off the pavement and at least a quarter-mile away from a residence. Wisconsin’s roadside disposal policy helps limit transportation costs and landfill tipping fees for the disposal of car-killed deer. It also provides food for birds of prey and other wildlife. It’s not pretty, and it sure can stink. But it doesn’t last forever. And watching a bald eagle feed on a deer carcass in the ditch is a sight to behold.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.