I Clean Roadkill Off Your Highways: 5 Weird Realities
If you spend much time behind the wheel, chances are you've inadvertently helped your share of unsuspecting critters shuffle off this mortal coil. What you may not realize is that while you frantically call up your insurance provider to see if you're covered for "antler in engine block," someone has in turn called up the Winston Wolf of feral stiffs to clean up the mess you made.
We reached out to one of these fixers of the American road, highway technician Brandon Massey. He let us in on some grisly daily realities of a job you probably have tried very hard not to think about. You're welcome!
Animals Can Explode
A dead animal on the roadway isn't exactly treated as an emergency, as you probably have guessed after driving past the same flattened woodchuck several days in a row. So right away the job of collecting roadkill is quite a bit more disgusting than it needs to be, since dead creatures don't exactly age like wine. "They may be half-eaten by coyotes or mostly decomposed," Brandon says. But if you do that job for a while, you find yourself praying for a hyena's leftovers once you come across a body that is, shall we say, a little too intact.
"Every now and then we come across a who looks like the Fat Albert of the deer world," Brandon continues."The deer gets struck in such a way that it closes off exits in its body, causing the building up of gas with nowhere to go, which blows the corpse up like a horrible furry balloon. A couple of times we were lucky to find them just as they were beginning to bloat. Usually a body bloats slightly anyway, but if you crush the small intestine, it's not coming out easily. Over time, it will gradually deflate -- unless it's punctured."
Which means at least one kid with a stick has gotten a "Turnpike Surprise" right in the face.
What follows is, well, just about the grossest fucking thing we've ever heard:
"The deer we picked up that did this had a pot belly, and it didn't compute for us at the time. It was a simple drag-into-truck job. There was a survey stake by the edge of the road and the belly must have scraped the top, because we heard a popping sound like a bursting pudding-filled water balloon -- then we saw half the deer entrails and blackish blood spurting out. It was the worst thing I have ever smelled, and I'm around death all day. I looked at my partner and he looked like he was going to pass out. We quickly dumped the carcass into the back of the truck, quadruple-bagged the entrails and went straight to the composting place. The smell didn't come out of my truck for a long time."
Yeah, that should fix it.
If you're the sort of person who previously could think of no reason not to poke a body with a stick, you've sure as shit got one now.
There's A Fair Amount Of Psychological Trauma, Too
Self-detonating meat pinatas notwithstanding, the worst thing you can find when you arrive on the scene is an animal that's not dead -- yet. In some cases, Brandon can arrange for a state trooper to put the poor thing out of its misery. Fun fact: If a police blotter ever says that law enforcement "dispatched" a deer, it doesn't mean they made him an honorary cadet and sent him out on a call.
Sorry to disappoint you, everyone who just envisioned a new CSI spinoff.
All of that goes out the window, however, when you're dealing with someone's potential Fluffykins. Not only is a mercy kill out of the question for domestic animals, you're obligated to hold a weird vigil of sorts. "We call it in and try to save them -- they belong to someone," Brandon says, but he admits: "Even if they were rushed to a vet, they aren't going to survive having part of them being nearly flattened. They could live maybe a few hours with all that internal bleeding." So get comfy, 'cause you're gonna be hanging out for those few hours. "For dogs and sometimes cats, you have to stick around while they die. ... And the troopers can't shoot them, even though the animal is going to die very soon and (immediate) euthanasia can seem like the less cruel option. I've had to radio in dogs twice. ... The supervisor let me off of work early both those days."
A half day in exchange for getting Old Yellered still seems like a pretty shitty trade.
And yes, it's a dog-specific trauma. "This probably sounds cruel, but dead cats don't really bother me or anyone else who does this. I don't know if it's the tags or just that human beings tend to be more connected to dogs, but finding dead dogs can still be more hard to do emotionally after a few years on the job."
And even when the dead and dying aren't someone's pet, there's the fact that not all of them are, you know, fully grown. "I've had to collect parts of little off the highway while their mother presumably watched from the woods. I've had to pull pregnant deer off roads. One time I had to get the body of a Canadian goose some drivers had complained about, only to find a few bodies of baby geese a few feet away."
All right, everybody: crying break. Let's meet back here in 10.
Yes, turnover in the job is high. "On my first day, we had to get a few deer carcasses and the guy I was riding along with didn't believe I was going to last the week. ... The last three people he trained quit because they couldn't deal with all the dead animals."
There's A Strategy For Every Carcass
So aside from all that, the actual removal of the street pizza must be fairly simple -- just hold your breath, peel, and chuck, right? Not so, friend. See, there are lots of different kinds of animals that pull the "in headlights" routine. Hell, the most common animal to become roadkill and the most common animal for Brandon to clean up aren't even the same animal. Deer aren't exactly unfairly stereotyped -- they account for about 90 percent of Brandon's removal duties -- but the most common animal to meet its maker on the road is the humble frog. It's just that no one bothers to scrape them up. Little did we know, the interstate highway system is just a big hard drive full of lost games of Frogger.
Although deer are often a quick pitch into the back of the truck, birds, coyotes, and even bears are also known to expire on the state highways. That means some species require a more clinical once-over. Raccoons and coyotes? Better look out for signs of rabies, which in low temperatures can survive for months in the body of a dead host. Skunks? Brandon's transportation department doesn't exactly issue HazMat suits, so it's a "one hand holding your shirt over your nose, one hand picking up the artist formerly known as Pepe Le Pew" situation. A dead bear is essentially a spontaneous team-building day for Brandon and his colleagues, as it can weigh up to 600 pounds.
It can also help you recall every time the animal wasn't quite dead yet
as you're getting ready to manhandle Yogi's corpse.
Those, believe it or not, are the easy jobs. The difficulty of a rake 'n' take largely depends on how long the guest of honor has been kept waiting, even if it's not a potential landmine. "If they've been out there awhile, they're going to fall apart," Brandon says. "This happened with a deer once. I think it was out there a week, and its body was hard as a rock. I grabbed its hind legs and lifted it -- only for it to become detached at the waist. Rotting deer intestines are not a pleasant smell, and since this happened in the morning, I spent the next four hours driving around in entrail-soaked cargo pants."
And on top of all that animal bullshit, Brandon still has to deal with people bullshit, too. "If the animal was struck by a car that's still there, I see the drivers have one of two reactions -- angry that their car is now damaged or totaled, or really upset that they just smashed into a deer. It's always going to be a mix of someone distraught at a sudden giant financial obligation and at killing their first big living thing ever." Well, presumably their first.
It's never easy to find the right words when you can't tell if they're crying for the sweet, innocent deer
or their sweet, innocent fender.
As a bonus, the job description also details exposure not only to recently expired wildlife, but also "containers filled with human waste, diapers, ditches with water and sewage." That's fancy talk for "wading in shit," so you know it's bad when that's actually not the worst part of your job.
It's Deadly Work
Aside from the occasional bout of rabies, it seems like these guys should be pretty safe as long as they double-bag it, but highway technicians and their Canadian brethren have a shockingly high mortality rate. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, an average of 1.6 road workers die each day. That puts them only behind pilots, loggers, and those working in the fishing industry in terms of on-the-job casualties. It's not because the government is covering up some kind of zombie deer outbreak; the responsibility usually lies with the most dangerous game of all ... man.
The government is covering up a vampire deer outbreak,
but that applies only if you work nights.
"The biggest danger to us is becoming roadkill ourselves," Brandon says. After all, you can't just shut down the highway for the not-insignificant amount of time it can take to drag a 200-pound deer across it, or nobody would ever get anywhere. That means waiting for a break in traffic and ninja-ing that shit out of there before the next Hummer rolls up and ensnares you in its grill. Despite Brandon's bright sartorial choices, he's had a few close calls with tractor trailers that barely even swerved to avoid missing him. Ironically, the very force that wants to kill him is the same thing that keeps him in a job.
At least the deer get a sign.
But that kind of disregard for life, even the medium-sentient variety, is dangerous for more than just Brandon and his woodland friends. In 2012 alone, car-deer collisions were responsible for $4 billion in repair expenses. A deer can fuck your car right up, and fucked-up cars lead to accidents.
"One buck had been hit and the antler was near the median. Those things can pop tires, and when I ran out to get it a few cars came out of nowhere," Brandon says. Surely those drivers were eternally grateful for Brandon's heroic efforts to keep them from skiing sparks down the interstate, yes? "They were so close I could see one woman on her cellphone with wide eyes and someone in the other car flipping me off." Keep it classy, that person!
The Bodies Might End Up In A Tiger's Belly
So what happens to all of the smooshed animals these road crews scrape up? We're sure you're dying to not know this, but we're going to tell you anyway!
Once the animal is all dead instead of mostly dead, Brandon might act as grave-digger, death-notifying officer, or Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas. "If it's a smaller animal like a rabbit or goose, we bury it nearby. Drive along any wooded highway and you are constantly passing by a long, extremely narrow animal cemetery."
They've renamed this stretch of road Stephen King Way.
Again, there's a greater sense of ritual when it comes to handling dogs and occasionally cats: "Owners sometimes want the body back, and we don't just throw them into a back room -- we lay them on a tarp or old blanket in case they are claimed. It's not much, but because many people see them as family or guardian, we give them some respect." This is actually a procedure that took some time to fine-tune, through trial and occasionally traumatizing error: "Our old way was to pile them in the truck. We got complaints about it when we didn't cover the bodies up -- sometimes a dead dog would be on top of the pile. We had to start covering them every time, because furious parents called us when their kids saw an open-eyed, dead dog staring back at them and got upset." Oops.
It's a lot harder to sell "That dog is just sleeping!" when he's "sleeping" on half of an elk.
With larger, more delicious animals, the driver will sometimes take Bambi home for dinner, saving Brandon and his co-workers the trouble of cleanup. Otherwise, highway techs dispense with ceremony for any wild animal larger than a raccoon: For deer and their similarly sized friends, it's the compost heap. "The carcasses are evenly spaced, mixed in with leaves and wood chips and other things cleared near highways, heated up to reduce the smell, and several months later, thoroughly composted into good soil. Farmers take some and the transportation department puts the rest back into landscaping projects. Those nice little parks outside of rest stops? Part of that is possible thanks to roadkill."
But that's just in some states. Other municipalities, like Rochester, New York, give their fresh roadkill to the local zoo as a special treat for carnivores. Indiana decided they couldn't let all those valuable deer guts go to waste, so they repurpose them into products like glue or Walter White them chemically into slurry. Some states just burn the bodies, while the state of New York goes the extra mile with a full sky burial, leaving the bodies out and depending on coyotes and vultures to do the dirty work.
But there's another group that may be picking up the slack on clearing the roads: foodies. Although skimming the shoulder the way you would your local meat counter has always been a hillbilly punchline, it's also a burgeoning trend in some circles. A handful of states have legalized "harvesting" roadkill, and while it's a little off-putting to see Car And Driver magazine publishing recipes, roadkill certainly is a more economic source of protein for the broke and undiscerning.
The North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish, Montana, actually accepts donations of what its staff members call "vehicle-tenderized meat." Even PETA has given the practice its blessing, arguing that if you have to feast on flesh, roadkill is more humane than anything factory-slaughtered, because it's likely "the animals never knew what hit them." Was that a pun? Did PETA just pun at us? We ... expected no better from you, PETA.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy and interviewer for the personal experience team. Have an awesome/amazing job/experience? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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