Riley Dehr: Bone appetit!

Thursday, November 14, 2019 - 6:11pm

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We drifted around campus, feeling the glares of college students rushing past us to class. Everyone was in awe at the overload of information that spouted out of our tour guide as we spun the cube and tiptoed over the block ‘M’ in the Diag. From the grandiose architecture to the towering trees, everything seemed special, even the legendary friendly squirrels. 

Now a junior, I still smile at the tiny, tree-dwelling rodents that seem to outnumber humans in Ann Arbor. On a daily basis, as I drive home to walk my dogs, I find myself slamming on my brakes as one of those fluffballs darts into the road. I haven’t killed one yet, but occasionally I’ll see a squirrel who wasn’t so lucky. Each dead squirrel is a sad reminder of Michigan’s disastrous roadkill problem.

I see it on my weekly drive to Ypsilanti to volunteer: the mangled corpses of almost a dozen animals in the span of a few miles. Skunks, possums, deer, coyotes, foxes, turtles, dogs, cats and every other road-adjacent animal in Michigan, smeared onto the highway. 

It’s no surprise these busy highways are almost insurmountable obstacles for Michigan’s critters, with a cement median blocking them from reaching the other side and effectively trapping them on the road. In Ann Arbor, animal vehicle collisions have become so frequent that they’ve impacted a major local issue: the deer cull

This man-made issue, caused by the extermination of the deer’s predators like gray wolves, has caused the number of deer-vehicle crashes to rise 73 percent between 2015 and 2016 and has pushed the government to hire professional sharpshooters to thin out the herd since 2016. They have killed hundreds of deer so far, but not without a fair amount of outcry from animal-loving citizens who point to the lack of crash fatalities as reason to call off the $370,000 program. 

Roadkill has become a major issue throughout the entire nation, costing $5.75 billion each year. The solutions, like wildlife crossings and preventive fencing, are relatively cheap compared to the effects of animal-vehicle collisions, which cost Michiganders alone more than $130 million in 2018.

Unlike in the forest, where scavengers and decomposers eat the corpses, roadkill often rots on the road or is taken to a landfill. Without the other critters of the forest able to recycle the corpses’ nutrients into the ecosystem, the carbon dioxide stored in these organisms is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Without preventative measures in place, some folks have come up with their own unique and delicious way of alleviating the issue, opting out of the deli for the open road by choosing to eat roadkill.

While it may seem taboo, eating roadkill is legal in some form in 30 states, including Michigan. Michigan state law allows people to keep all forms of roadkill after undertaking the proper legal procedures. This allows venison and bear meat enthusiasts to use the hundreds of pounds of fresh, free-range meat that may happen to find itself strewn across their bumpers.

Environmentalists are in love with the idea. By consuming what would have otherwise gone on to harm the environment, this eating habit has the potential to be more environmentally friendly (and a lot easier) than even veganism. Advocates even call the animals’ cause of death “humane” in comparison to the horrific practices used to raise and slaughter most store-bought meat. 

There’s already a thriving subculture based around eating a wide variety of roadkill. I was surprised by how good the recipes sounded, from fox lasagna to Pennsylvania possum pot pie and a dish featuring my friends in the Diag: squirrel in cream. Some communities have chosen to utilize this free and nutritious source of protein to help solve hunger in their communities.

In the parks of Denver this summer, thousands of geese were rounded up after extreme measures to depopulate them failed. About 1,662 were killed and donated to local food banks to feed the city’s homeless population. While this is perhaps a cruel example, it reflects the idea of feeding vulnerable populations with fresh, wild game while saving cities thousands of dollars on meat that would otherwise have been donated or purchased.

Programs using the country’s vast amounts of roadkill make financial and moral sense for communities with chronic deer problems like Ann Arbor. Instead of making these animals’ deaths mean nothing, perhaps they can be used to better our society and help those in need. A program similar to one already in place for the city’s culled deer could bring the community together over the smell of delicious venison stew rather than fracture it over the stench of rotting deer corpses. 

Riley Dehr can be reached at rdehr@umich.edu.