Sunday, August 22, 2010

Roadkill on the Streets of Suburbia

I don't like the term "roadkill" but even the naturalist I spoke with said is the term in use. That said, this is not an easy subject to talk about---but that's the point, I suppose....

This summer, from the comfort of our car, my kids and I have seen some deer, a frog, two turtles, several raccoons, a few birds, and a bunch of squirrels. Unfortunately, all of these animals were dead.

Rigor mortis on the roadkill du jour belongs in the ever-expanding category of topics I’d rather not talk about with my five year old. It’s up there with “how mom actually got pregnant”, and a literal explanation of the lyrics to Yankee Doodle Dandy.

“What was that?” my daughter asks on our way to the highway.

“Oh, a raccoon,” I say. “Aren’t we lucky to see a nocturnal animal, and it’s only ten in the morning.”

“Why is its leg sticking up?”

“Ah, yes--completely natural--once an animal has died. Rig-a-”

“Was that a mommy raccoon?”

Would it be better to say it was a juvenile?

My part of New Jersey has farms and country roads, but it is hardly rural. Ten percent of the US population lives within a 75 mile radius. And maybe that’s the problem. In the midst of building houses and businesses, we’ve left little space for wildlife.

I have not been keeping an actual tab on the number of dead animals along the side of the road, but it seems we’ve seen more than usual. In fact, much of nature has been topsy-turvy this summer. The fruit at a local orchard has ripened weeks ahead of schedule—with Honey Crisp apples now falling off the branches. In my own neighborhood, the buzz of leaf blowers has arrived well before sweater season.

Has the heat and lack of rain increased the number of roadkill this summer, too?

It’s possible, says Diane Nickerson, the director of the Mercer County Wildlife Center. The harsh conditions have created a particular problem for her as she thinks about releasing rehabilitated skunks, squirrels and songbirds back into the wild:

“It would be irresponsible of me to put more animals into a habitat that is already stressed.”

Streams have dried up, and it’s harder to find release spots with enough food and water. Perhaps some of the animals I’ve seen were on the move for this very reason. And, when it comes to crossing the street, even the most well-bred dog doesn’t use a crosswalk.

In fact, to most animals, cars aren’t perceived as dangers.

“A predator is something that wants to hurt them,” Nickerson said, explaining why animals still haven’t figured out not to jaywalk, “......the car is a nonentity to them. It’s incumbent upon people to understand that and slow down.”

I’m no scientist, but I thought it would be interesting, if not slightly macabre, to compare the roadkill numbers of this summer to years past. I’ve got plenty of construction paper and my oldest is very good at making pie charts.

I hit a slight snag, however, in obtaining that all important element called data. First, I learned the only type of animal marked and picked up from the side of the road is deer. The state has delegated that job to individual municipalities. And, those, in turn, have passed the buck, as it were, to particular departments, most of which would not call me back or offer anything but a busy signal. All this means that my two year old could start a tally on a Magna Doodle and give me more information than the DOT.

That is not to say that the problem isn’t serious—or costly. And, while I know many states out west keep track of animal-vehicle collisions, there does not seem to be a universal tracking system.

Anecdotally, though, everyone in my area knows to look out for deer, and not just on the side of the road, spray painted with an orange “x”. If you see one staring innocently at you from the bushes, you’ll probably see three more darting in front of your headlights a second or two later. It’s this type of collision that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does assess--1.5 million crashes in the United States a year, totaling about $1 billion in damage. And, AAA spokesperson Tracy Noble said the Mid-Atlantic Insurance Group saw more than 200 “deer vs. vehicle” crashes in New Jersey in 2008, with an average claim of $2,840.

From her perspective, the most dangerous months are still to come: late October, November and part of December, deer mating season, when, “deer are on the prowl, with only love on their minds...”

This means, when it comes to explaining the sad sight of dead animals along the side of the road, I really do need to get my story straight.

My intentions are arguably good: to spare my oldest from feeling too much grief and hope she doesn’t ask me to stop the car and perform a risky and most likely futile act of heroism. But, the result is a big fat lie.

Don’t be sad. And, no, the animal didn’t suffer.

This is when I stew in my own moral dilemma. Because even if the raccoon had dumped over a garbage can and died with rabid foam crusted over its mouth, I’d still say the indignity of letting a once-living creature lie along the side of the road while we speed off to get our Swiffer refills is not the lesson I want to teach.

 And, yet. I’m not about to stop.

Perhaps I could create a little roadkill poem, something we say in the car to acknowledge the dead animal and its lonely end. Or, as Nickerson suggested, we could give a donation to the nonprofit portion of a Wildlife Center. They don’t just need money—paper towels, trash bags, and bottles of bleach, would be handy, too.

Nickerson is not one to anthropomorphize animals, but she explained the plight of roadkill this way:

On her drive to work, she came across a squirrel that had been run over. When she went back to examine it, she saw two babies cuddled next to it. She didn’t want them to get run over, too, so she moved the body of the mom, and they ran off, watching her from afar and “chattering.” Were they grieving the loss of their mom? She thought of it in more practical terms: “I am quite sure they were following her, and now she’s dead, and they’re wondering—what do we do?”

For those who say some of these animals are nuisances anyway, she cautions it’s not our place to judge the value of animals in an interconnected ecosystem. And, it’s this aspect of roadkill that haunts me. The vultures, which mysteriously moved to town five years ago, will make a meal of the carcasses. But, when an animal is hit, and left to die alone, it’s hard to not think of how that neglect moves up the food chain. Because in most senses, Nickerson says, “what happens to those animals happens to us eventually.”

I have a friend who lives on Main Street in a town a few miles away. The speed limit is strictly enforced at 25 miles an hour, still too fast for a slow moving raccoon hit by a car one night several months back. He took his final resting spot near the curb by her house. For several days, my friend and her four year old walked past the furry guy. She had to answer questions about what had happened and why, when rigor mortis took hold, he looked the way he did. A week passed, and still no municipal worker removed the body. She asked her husband to do something, but....

Finally, a mother did what a mother had to do. She strapped two trash bags on each hand, walked outside, grabbed the animal by its tail, and tossed it in her trash can.

All things considered, it was the most humane thing to do.


Anonymous said...

One of the problems of roadkill in NJ is that there are way too many restrictions on hunting, especially deer hunting. The area where my family comes from, Sussex County, was getting overrun with deer. I imagine it still is. I don't understand how animal rights folks can think it's more humane for a deer to be hit by a car, left for roadkill, than it is for a deer to be hunted, it's meat eaten.
In many hunter-friendly regions of the US, game is often donated to Food Banks and other service organizations. The meat is not wasted and greatly appreciated by those in need.
I don't hunt but I'm not anti-hunting. It is a legitimate population/herd control method, used since cavemen times.
As to the other critters, squirrels, turtles and such, I admit, I brake (and sometimes yell at the lil' darlings). Here's an imponderable...why do we feel more sad about rabbits hit by cars than squirrels? I think it's because squirrels act like they know exactly what they're doing when they pull that whole stop-start-stop routine. Anyway, my opinion only. Interesting post. I remember hitting a bird with my car, and a duck. My kids were in the car with me. They're probably scarred.

Diana said...

What an interesting post, Sarah. I have to admit, I was reluctant to read it because even as an adult, I wince at the sight of anything on the road. Just a few weeks ago, driving through NJ actually, I saw a baby dear and it was just plain awful. I can't imagine all of the implications of explaining to children and then deciding what to do about it. Living in NYC, we overlook a lot. We've learned to turn a blind eye to so many horrors. I always think, what is the best way to help. I guess we all have to search ourselves and figure out how to do our part -- no matter the cause.