Most of us remember well our first sight of a dead human body. Most often it is surrounded by the aura of silent respect, but also more than a little horror, as if catching sight of a ghost while singing a hymn in church.
Roadkill, on the other hand, usually offers no emotional calibration at all whenever we chance upon it.
If you walk to and from work in the bordering neighborhoods of St. Louis and Clayton, Missouri, as I do, the sight of lifeless—or, more often, pulverized—squirrels, rabbits, and possums are the stuff of fleeting glances and disgust. Usually, these silent, furry masses require nothing but a sidestep. There has been more than one instance, however, that while deep in thought or not quite yet awake in the morning, I have either kicked into a carcass or stepped square onto its near-liquid quagmire. Yes, nature is “red in tooth and claw,” as Alfred Lord Tennyson described it. But these days it is more likely to have the life pounded out of it by a polychromatic fender or black tire tread.
Have you yet to run over an animal yourself? Fret not. The peak season for deer-car collisions is just around the corner, during October and November. Missouri ranks high, too, at No. 16 nationally for animal collisions. Should you doubt that, ask your insurance company.
As a culture, we anthropomorphize animals no end in children’s books and stuffed animal toys. The map of human responses to the animal world is wide enough, and deep enough, to cover Build-A-Bear, the bear spray we are now advised to pack on camping trips, the cartoon violence of “Road Runner,” and the butcher’s section of a grocery store. We turn to the companionship of house pets when people fail us in friendship. Meanwhile, the evolutionary interplay of disease-inducing viruses that jump from animals to humans is something we pay attention to only after we are asked to stay home or “mask up.”
Roadkill, on the other hand, resides at the end of the spectrum where our adoration for animals ends and nuisance begins. It is only when we examine the numbers—after asking whose job it is to clear an animal carcass off your property—that attitudes begin to shift. Plague-inducing viruses may one day jump from minks, pigs, or bats to decimate the human population. Post-Covid, however, humans are ahead of the game simply by driving cars.
The numbers, quite frankly, are jaw-dropping. In Europe, it is estimated that 194 million birds and 29 million mammals die annually at the hands of someone behind the wheel. In the United States, where cars are transportation royalty, the number of vertebrate animals slayed soars to more than 350 million annually. In the case of Europe, there are concerns that some species, such as hazel grouse and the maned wolf, are being driven (sorry) to extinction.
This is not just material for restaurant jokes, or even coloring books. Once you explore the world of roadkill and roadkill fetishists—yes, they exist—it all takes on a curious life (sorry) of its own.
State laws regulating roadkill are where the intersection of appetite and aesthetics meet. Or, if you prefer bureaucratic language, between public health and public management of roads. If someone is actually going to scrape dead animals off the road for a home-cooked meal, why on Earth would we pay public employees to do the same? Here in Missouri, we seem to have found a balance, at least across different species. State lawmakers have decided that expired deer are unsightly enough to matter. And whose child has not cried through the car door window at the sight of “dead Bambi”? Squirrels, by contrast, are potentially good enough for the Missouri Department of Conservation to offer up a sausage recipe.
The bad news is that roadkill is only bound to increase as human populations grow and animals—who can blame them?—refuse to budge. Climate change is playing its part as well. The next time you take a hand off the steering to wipe your sweltering brow might well be the time you hit a deer. As the “Roadkill Files” of the Missouri Department of Conservation advises, do not attempt to swerve and avoid this poor creature last minute. Most injuries—and in this show-down, we are talking about the human end—occur not when motorists hit deer, but when trying to dodge them.
My own encounters with St. Louis’s animal life have run the gamut, from steely, cobalt-eyed possums crossing the road and down into cavernous storm drains, to the nervy sound of squirrel claws on endless rows of tree bark. My drives so far have been splat-free. But every creature is alive until dead. Whether it be a carcass of squirrel, rabbit, possum, raccoon, or deer, ask not for whom the roadkill calls. It calls for me, and it calls for you.