Roadkill cuisine: a guide to why and where you should pick up that possum

roadkill cuisineReduce, reuse, recycle is hardly a new concept. Except when it’s applied to roadkill. Oh, sure, backwoods folk, the itinerant, and gritty survivalist types have been making good use of roadside casualties for years. Slowly but surely however, the benefits of roadkill cuisine have been creeping into the public conscience.

Witness the popularity of The Original Roadkill Cookbook and its ilk, or the new Travel Channel series, “The Wild Within,” in which host/outdoor journalist Steven Rinella travels the world channeling his inner hunter-gatherer (see “San Francisco Roadkill Raccoon” clip at the end of this post). It’s only a matter of time before hipsters get in on this, mark my words.

Lest you think I’m making light of what is essentially a tragic waste of life: I’m an animal lover, grew up on a ranch, and my dad is a large animal veterinarian. I’ve slaughtered livestock, and admittedly have a somewhat utilitarian outlook on the topic of meat. That said, few things upset me more than seeing a dead animal or bird on the road.

The first time I ever thought of roadkill as having a purpose is when I visited Alaska a decade ago. A guide informed me that the state not only permits the use of roadkill for human consumption, but that there’s a waiting list. Think about it: a moose carcass can feed a family for a year. It’s only fairly recently that I learned every state has different regulations that apply to roadkill (more on that in a minute).

If you can overcome your initial disgust at the thought of plucking a carcass from the road and doing the necessary prep to render it casserole-ready, utilizing roadkill makes sense. No, seriously.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Irargerich]roadkill cuisinePros

  • It’s economical.
  • It utilizes a perfectly good (usually) protein source that would otherwise go to waste.
  • It’s giving a purpose to an otherwise wasted life
  • It’s ecologically responsible.
  • It’s a free, nutritious food source that can help sustain anyone, including individuals or families in need.
  • Many roadkill species taste great, and command premium prices when farm-raised and sold retail (elk, venison, boar, certain game birds).
  • It’s free of the hormones and/or antibiotics found in factory farmed meat and poultry.
  • It’s a better, kinder, more responsible alternative to poaching.

Cons

  • Parasites and disease

Obviously, if the meat looks bad, don’t use it. But wild animals can also play host to a wide variety of parasitic and bacterial critters invisible to the naked eye. It’s critical to thoroughly cook meat to kill any pathogens (fortunately, braising is the best method of preparing most roadkill species, as it renders the meat more tender). If you’re freaked out by the thought of ingesting roadkill for this reason, think about how often ground beef recalls are issued due to E. coli. Personally, I’d rather eat roadkill, when I think about what’s in the average fast food burger.

So now that you know roadkill is generally fine to use as long as it’s fresh and not too damaged, what are the rules? Well, it depends upon what state you’re in (for the record, roadkill cuisine isn’t just a U.S. thing, waste not, want not being a global concept). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website has a state-by-state directory of Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Fish and Game/Fish and Wildlife/Division of Wildlife offices; each state has different rules as to which office oversees roadkill regulations. In many states, permits are issued by state troopers or county law enforcement.
roadkill cuisine
Be aware that in many states, collection of roadkill is illegal, although drivers are asked to call and report dead animals so they can be properly disposed of. The most expedient thing to do if you hit an animal/see fresh roadkill is to call local law enforcement.

For your perusal, a sampling of regulations for states that permit collection (or “salvage”) of roadkill:

Western U.S.
Alaska: Sets the bar for philanthropic roadkill rules. All specimens are considered the property of the state, and by law, drivers must alert state troopers if they spot roadkill. If the meat is fresh and in good condition, the carcass is butchered by volunteers, and distributed to the needy. Roadkill wait lists are also available for the general populace living in rural areas.
Wyoming: As long as you have it tagged by a game warden (to deter poaching), it’s yours.
Colorado: Obtain a “donation certificate” or tag issued by the Division of Wildlife, first.

Midwest
Illinois: If you hit it, you can keep it, as long as you’re a resident, not delinquent in child support payments (um, okay…), and don’t have your wildlife privileges suspended in any other state. Deer must be reported to the DNR prior to claiming.
Nebraska: If you hit a deer, antelope, or elk, report it to the Parks and Game Commission to obtain a salvage permit before you butcher the carcass.

Northeast
New Jersey: Get a permit by calling a state trooper, and you can collect deer.
West Virginia: If you report the fatality within 12 hours; it’s legal to remove and consume any and all roadkill. There’s even an annual roadkill cook-off.

Southern U.S.
Georgia: Hit a bear, report it, and it’s yours. Deer don’t have to be reported.

A few states that prohibit collection of roadkill
California
Texas
Wisconsin
Tennessee
Washington
roadkill cuisine
An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of roadkill
Ideally, the goal is to avoid creating roadkill at all. In 2008, the Federal Highway Administration estimated between one and two million vehicular collisions with large wildlife species occur annually in the U.S.. Only a small number of those result in human fatality, but it can certainly wreck or mess up a car. When you also consider smaller animals/birds, collisions can have a devastating impact upon wildlife populations, especially on already threatened species. Many states have instituted wildlife tunnels underneath highways that are considered high impact zones (this could be due to migratory patterns, easy road access, etc.).

Please drive carefully in designated wildlife or rural areas (you know, where you see those glaring yellow, triangular road signs with deer or cows or elk pictured on them), and try to avoid driving at dawn or dusk, which is when large game head out to feed. Night driving should also be avoided if you can avoid it, or undertaken with extreme caution. Trust me, after years of living in the mountains of Colorado, I’ve seen more than my share of wildlife road death (and unfortunately contributed to the early demise of a few prairie dogs and rabbits). I’ve also seen what a run-in with a moose can do to a car, and it’s not pretty.

Obviously, it’s not worth causing a multiple-car accident to avoid an animal in the road, but stay alert, don’t text or use your cell phone without a headset, drive within the speed limit, and odds are, you’ll never have a problem. Worst case scenario, please be a responsible citizen, and pull over to make sure the animal is dead. Regardless of how you feel about animals or eating roadkill, no living creature should be allowed to suffer. Have a heart. Then take it home and cook it.

[Photo credit: bbq, Flickr user The Suss-Man (Mike), deer, Flicker user Eric Bégin]


Northeastern Montana: More than land to blast through

I’ve driven through northeastern Montana twice. The second time was last summer. Each time my husband, kids and I have blasted through on our way to elsewhere–once to East Glacier and once to Billings. With the miles it takes to get that far from central Ohio, putting the pedal to the metal is a tendency.

As we pass each town separated by wide expanses of scenery topped by endless sky, “That looks like a neat place. I wonder what it’s like?” My attention, however, is more on our friends who are waiting for us at the end of journey. After reading this travel article in the New York Times, I’m thinking that the next time we should stop longer than it takes to fill the gas tank..

First, I didn’t realize how rich in dinosaurs this region is. My son is sooooo determined to dig for dinosaur bones. Here it’s possible. When we were in Miles City, one of the region’s towns, and the only place we stopped, the only digging was by my husband who dug a pheasant that we hit back in North Dakota out of the grill of our car.

Along with digging for dinosaur bones, fishing for paddlefish is another area offering. Plus, there are several museums that pay tribute to the natural and human history and life of this part of Montana. Next time, we’re parking the car and getting out. The article is a keeper since it tells exactly where to go.The article’s slide show is a perfect enticement.

Boeing 737 makes duck soup with ducks and lands safely

Not all planes that hit flocks of birds end up making crash landings. When a Boeing 737 flew through a flock of ducks near Fairbanks, Alaska on Thursday, it did make an emergency landing to make sure that there wasn’t any major damage to the aircraft other than the crack in the outer windshield. The only other damage was a dent in the engine cowling.

The description of the ducks bouncing off the jet reminded me a bit of the pheasants (and the black bird , and the chipmunk AND raccoon) that bounced off our car last summer when we drove along the Enchanted Highway in North Dakota on our Great American Road trip. Quite alarming and unusual. We’ve been on this road before with never a problem.

It’s not that unusual for planes to hit birds in Alaska. According to the article in the Anchorage Daily News most of the time, the birds just bounce off the airplane and nothing happens. In our case, one of the pheasants was stuck in the grill of our car, something my husband discovered when we stopped to get gas.

In the case of a plane going through flocks of ducks, I wonder if anyone on board has ever yelled, “Duck!”

*Thanks to Gadling reader, Matt for the heads up on this story.

Tasmania: Roadkill capital of the world

Several weeks ago I was exploring Tasmania with my best friend, Sarah. We had a loose itinerary consisting of hikes at Cradle Mountain, exploring Freycinet National Park and a look at the prison in Port Arthur. Before we departed Sydney for Hobart, everyone warned us about two things that we’d encounter in Tasmania: dismal weather and more roadkill than we’d ever seen. Now, the weather prognostications didn’t shock me. Tasmania is known to be damp and significantly colder than mainland Australia. But roadkill? That seemed like an odd thing to mention. Little did we know that we would soon learn all too well that Tasmania truly is the roadkill capital of the world.

We arrived in Hobart and rented a car to head north to Cradle Mountain. It wasn’t long before we noticed that the roads were littered with dead rabbits, possums, and perhaps saddest of all, wallabies. Not 50 yards would go by without seeing the corpse of another animal who was just a bit too bold or a step too slow. At first, it didn’t register in our minds just how many dead animals we were seeing. In a few days time, however, we’d understand more clearly than we’d like.
Literally every road, highway and path in Tasmania has the remnants of the indigenous marsupials that are active between dusk and dawn. Their lifestyle is their downfall. These animals are active at night and the roads in Tasmania are curvy, hilly and not well lit. As such, every night becomes a bloodbath in the smallest Australian state. According to Roadkill in Tasmania, approximately 293,000 animals become roadkill in Tasmania annually. The roadkill is so dense that a dead animal on the road can be seen every three kilometers.

We learned this lesson with a close call during our first night on the island. We were leaving our backpackers site to get dinner down the road. The sun was rapidly setting and dusk was upon us. I slowly drove down the gravel road, not because I was wary of animals but because I wasn’t sure that our cheap rental could survive a gravel road. We hadn’t traveled more than 20 yards before the wallabies made themselves known. There were three foraging right alongside of the road. We crawled past them safely and laughed about how amazing it was that we had such a close encounter with a unique animal.

The days flew by in Tasmania as we hiked around Dove Lake and explored Wineglass Bay. All the while we began to become cognizant of the amount of roadkill that we had witnessed. But our personal understanding was still to come.

We left the Tasman Peninsula on our third day on the island and headed back towards the east coast to make our way to Bicheno. Having no agenda, we meandered our way there, stopping to see platypus, echidna and seahorses at various wildlife parks. Eventually, day turned into night and my friend Sarah found herself on one of the curviest stretches of the Tasman Highway. It was time for us to understand Tasmanian roadkill firsthand.

We were the only car in sight around 8:00PM on that early March evening. It was pitch black outside with the exception of our car’s high beams. Seemingly out of nowhere, a rabbit darted into the road in front of us. Remarkably, Sarah was able to avoid the tiny critter without incident. We joked about the near miss and quickly turned our attention back to finding any radio station that would work in this random part of Tasmania. Not two minutes later, it happened. Sarah gasped, there was a blur in front of us and then a thud that echoed both in feel and sound. The possum never had a chance.

To say that it ran into the road a mere foot in front of the car would be an understatement. If the it had been any closer to us, it would have ran into the side of the car. Sarah couldn’t have avoided it. A possum was dead and we had added to the public cemetery of animals on Tasmania. Not surprisingly, Sarah was startled and shaken. She slowed the car down to about 30 km/h and focused all of her attention straight ahead. About three minutes later, no more than ten feet ahead of us, was a wallaby. It was standing in the road. Staring at us. Was it suicidal? Hitchhiking? We didn’t know why it was standing in the most dangerous place possible, but Sarah slowed down even more and safely navigated around it.

We avoided night driving over the next two days. We had one encounter with a pademelon who ran in front of our car on a dirt road but he literally kept running ahead of us while we slowly traversed the uneven surface. Otherwise, we drove cautiously, without incident and by the light of the sun. During the day, the creatures of Tasmania are safely tucked away in trees and burrows.

We returned to Sydney with plenty of stories of Tasmania. The weather, remarkably, had been gorgeous. So, in that respect, our friends’ warnings were incorrect. But the tales of roadkill were all too true. However, there was one thing that no one had warned us about. You can’t exactly describe it as roadkill, but it still involves some of Tasmania’s smallest creatures. You see, there are a lot of bugs in Tasmania. And they, too, are active at night. And they don’t fair well against cars either.

Great American Road Trip: More road kill woes and how to clean a car

The first mishap was when we nailed a possum in Illinois east of Chicago the first night of our road trip to Montana. The critter was lumbering across the interstate about 10:30 p.m. That was a sad moment.

Thursday, driving to and from Regent, North Dakota we had several sad moments. Honestly, there are some things that can’t be avoided.

I already posted about the two pheasants we hit. The chipmunk and the blackbird came later.

We didn’t hit them all at once, but over the course of several miles. Such is one of the realities of traveling on small two-lane highways–but this was ridiculous. Particularly when two raccoons made a mad dash in front of us as I was typing the previous sentence. The second one didn’t make it.

With each thump, I’m shouting out from the passenger seat, a strangled “Arggh!” Seriously, it was a nightmare. “That’s one way to damage a car,” I said.

“It’s not like I’m trying to hit them,” said my husband. It’s true, he wasn’t, and swerving too much is dangerous. He pointed out the deep ditch on the side of the road.

My son, the six-year-old wanted to stop for feathers and fur.

My daughter wanted to know why I’m making such an awful sound.

Turns out, I was onto something. While my husband was filling the gas tank in Miles City, Montana after dropping us off at a McDonald’s so our son could let off steam at the indoor playland, one of the pheasants was still with us. It had broken the grill a tad–just big enough to become wedged behind it.

Two truckers, noticing the predicament, exchanged their road kill tales with my husband and helped him figure out how to remove it. The windshield squeegee handle was somehow involved. I didn’t want the specific details.

When my husband showed up at the McDonald’s parking lot with the pheasant in a plastic bag with grand plans of showing it to our friend in Billings, I shouted, “Arggh!” and ran in the opposite direction. “No dead things in the car. Absolutely not,” I shouted from where I stood, still ready to flee if he stepped one foot closer. I hate dead things.

The pheasant was left in a garbage can in Miles City. There are a couple feathers in another bag behind the driver’s seat, but I’m trying not to think about them.

A woman told us, as she was sliding into her truck after hearing about our pheasant mishap, “Watch out for deer.”

The photo is of my son trailing his hand out the window for a moment to catch raindrops, one of the pleasant aspects of the day. Not pheasant–pleasant.