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Roadkill

I’m out on the Oregon coast today, conducting habitat assessments with a colleague who I quite admire. Besides being a prominent figure of conservation in the North Coast community, he is very knowledgeable about all sorts of things that I someday hope to be knowledgeable about. I hop in his truck this morning since he knows the area much better than me, and we begin to head towards our sites. As we are driving up Highway 101 on the coast, he suddenly veers to the shoulder, alongside a bloated roadkill deer. It just so happens to be lying right under the “Welcome to Seaside” sign.

“Oh, got to grab this deer”, he says. I look at him, surprised. “It’s for the land conservancy, ” he explains. Apparently, they put roadkill deer out in the pastures on this huge piece of property they own, for the eagles, cougar, and coyotes to eat. He explained that it was a huge waste otherwise because the state just throws them into the dump. This makes sense to me, but he further explains that he had permission from the Fish and Wildlife department, so what the heck- it now appears to be the most reasonable thing in the world. Also, this colleague is much older than me and very well respected, so I’m inclined to go with the flow here. But it’s raining outside, hard, and the deer is pretty gross, so I’m slightly skeptical. I look at him sidelong again. “You don’t need my help, do you?” I ask. “Oh no.” he reassures me, and hops out of the truck.

Through the side mirror I can see him wrestling with this huge bloated deer (it’s a buck) at the back of his truck bed and it is clear he is not going to get it in the truck bed himself. I try not to look too much and especially not to make any eye contact with him while he is wrestling it, with the fear that he will gesture me back there. Sooner or later though, he comes over to the passenger side and tells me he needs help, looking somewhat sheepish.

I get out of the truck and the deer is disgusting. It’s been dead for a few days and it freaking stinks. And, there is stuff coming out of it. I try not to stare too hard at the head trauma, from which fluids are currently bubbling. I feel slightly sick. I realize it is bad enough to notice a dead deer on the side of the road, but much much worse to actually stop and attempt to come into physical contact with one.

“Do you have any gloves?” I demand. “I’m not touching that without gloves.” I go on to announce. He isn’t sure, but he begins rummaging through his truck for gloves while I try not to look at the deer and take deep breaths for what I must do next. I am hoping he does not find any gloves, since at that point I will be home free. Much to my disappointment, he triumphantly finds some latex gloves. I don them and proceed to hoist the deer into the truck, holding my breath and trying not to feel the cold stiff body. Dead stuff doesn’t really bother me, I’m a pragmatic biologist after all, but it’s not necessarily something I enjoy. Add the roadkill parameter, and it’s a downright horrendous task.

The deer has rigamortis so it’s legs are sticking straight up out of the bed of the pickup truck. It looks kind of ridiculous, and it smells so bad that when we park at our next site, I dash into the woods at the first possible chance. We hike to our wetland, do our habitat assessment, and around thirty minutes later we return to the truck to find it surrounded by police.

There was three cop cars, and officers looking for us in the woods, ready to arrest us for poaching a deer. It takes us thirty minutes to explain the situation but they have already called the state police as well as Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and it appears to be a huge fiasco. They start running my ID and checking me for warrants and stuff. Hmmm, wouldn’t this be a bad time for that old marijuana charge from South Dakota to show up? Fortunately, it’s been many many years since those days, and I come through free and clear.

Nevermind that the deer clearly looks like roadkill and we clearly don’t look like hunters, the cops are downright convinced that we poached a deer. I point out how stiff it is, and I show him my business card that says “biologist”. Then I try to offer another point of view: why would anybody poaching a deer drive around in broad daylight with the legs sticking straight up like that? He replies that people around these parts are “incredibly stupid”. My colleague, for all his knowledge about the universe and for all his beaming intellect, somewhere along the lines missed the life lesson where you learn how to act around cops. He became so flustered with the whole initial cop thing, that he was acting really nervous and stammering and getting all shifty eyed, and we totally looked guilty. So I’m left to try and handle it, poor me who would’ve never chosen to become that intimate with such a large piece of roadkill… ever.

When the state police and wildlife guys finally show up, they knew my colleague and are familiar with the land conservancy, and everyone has a good laugh and off we go, deer legs sticking up and all. It was an interesting day. I hope those cougars, bobcats, coyotes, or eagles enjoy our efforts and have a really kick ass meal tonight.

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