A Republican, a PETA activist, a hunter, and an environmentalist sit at a table. The dish of choice? Believe it or not: road kill.
Legislation allowing the consumption of road kill is increasingly common across the United States, a sensible, if nose-wrinkling, idea that has gained support from otherwise disparate camps.
Good studies on road kill are understandably scarce, but a 2007 report to Congress by the Department of Transportation estimated that 300,000 animals get hit by cars each year, noting that “most researchers believe that [such accidents] are substantially underreported.” (The DOT also reported that when a deer is struck, the driver pays, on average, $1,840 in car repair, $2,702 in medical costs, and $125 for towing and tickets.) Supporters see road kill as a largely untapped source of nutritious, ethically sourced food.
Montana’s legislature is part-time, and Steve Lavin (R., Kalispell) also works as a state trooper. He says he authored a bill on road kill after seeing demand for a legal way to consume it. Road-fresh elk or moose meat is often donated to food banks, he says, though the legality is somewhat dubious. The bill won 95-to-3 approval in the Montana house and will soon be considered in the senate.
A similar bill recently died in Wyoming, running out of time despite substantial support. And Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all allow some form of road-kill scavenging. Several of these provisions have passed in the last three years.
Wyoming’s bill was the brainchild of Jonathan Root, a student at the University of Wyoming who worked as an aide in the state legislature. He says he pitched the idea to Representative Dan Zwonitzer (R., Cheyenne) because road kill is so common, and “as a hunter, I’m concerned with want and waste.”
“I think there is a knee-jerk reaction, a stigma of sorts against anything road kill,” Root tells National Review Online. “People have this vision in their heads of days- or weeks-old, flattened, sun-dried carcasses. But that’s not really what we’re talking about. . . . It’s silly in my mind that we can’t harvest any part of that animal. . . . That’s literally tons of meat that is being wasted every year.”
The question, of course, is who would want to eat road kill.
More people than you’d think, says Sandor Ellix Katz, an author and expert on grassroots food movements. Personally, he’s tried road-killed deer, squirrel, raccoon, and, once, lard from a bear hit by a car in the mountains of North Carolina. (In case you were thinking, “Oh my god,” yes, it was good, he says.)
Katz says he’s met “hundreds of people who do it, but it’s not like it’s this big, organized thing. . . . Let’s just say that for the most part, road-kill consumers are not people who have full-time jobs and mortgages. It’s people who are living more marginal existences. Sometimes they’re people who are nomadic. Sometimes they are rural people living some sort of partially subsistent lifestyle.”
Others dine on road kill out of ethical concerns, Katz says. Many are former vegans or opponents of so-called factory farming who want protein and see road kill as an acceptable solution.
Matt Kenna, an environmental lawyer in Durango, Colo., says he first tried road kill almost 20 years ago. Although he hunts, he succeeds in getting an elk only once every four years. The other years, he patrols the highways in search of fresh road kill. “I’d imagine in big cities, it comes as more of a shock,” Kenna says. “Sometimes I’ll make meatballs at a party and say it’s road kill, and people laugh — but they end up eating it. I’m not sure you’d get that response everywhere.”
Kenna says a mature cow elk produces up to 150 pounds of free-range, organic meat. Comparable beef would cost at least $10 a pound, he says. So each time he collects, he walks away with $1,500 or more in free meat.
Kenna adds that while he eats road kill out of choice, not necessity, “there are a lot of people who would take advantage of this who are really struggling to make ends meet.” He points out that “a full-sized elk can feed a family for a year in terms of their meat consumption. And it helps get carcasses off the road. I can’t think of any downside to it.”
Enthusiasts insist road kill is good, healthy food that is too often left to spoil for no good reason. In fact, PETA has stated that “road kill is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped plastic packages of meat in the supermarket,” adding that road-kill animals did not “hear the screams and smell the fear of the animals ahead of them on the slaughter line. Perhaps the animals never knew what hit them.”
Katz says it’s easy to tell whether an animal has gone bad; warmth, smell, and stiffness are all good indicators. “In general, most wild animals would be safer to eat than domestic animals,” Katz says. “That ideology that assumes that everything has to be officially inspected — it pretty much assumes that everyone is an idiot. . . . But the ideology of the only food that’s safe is the sort of food that’s come under regulatory scrutiny is widespread in our time.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.