Flashback Stories: Adventures In Roadkill

Work here has me exhausted and uninspired, so I’m once again digging into my trove of past naturalist stories. Staying consistent, these are not necessarily related to Costa Rica, but fit the theme of my career in that they are misadventures concerning a day in the life of an aspiring biologist, filtered through the lens of hindsight. Also, they are 100% utterly disturbing. If past articles or this title haven’t already been enough warning, nothing will. Read on at your own risk.

My very first job out of college had me working as a biological technician for a large military contractor in Central California. At least, that’s what it was on paper. It looked great on a resume, all very official and professional. What it really meant is that I was a sort of jack-of-all-trades naturalist field worker who the company kept onhand so they could bid on various environmental projects on a massive Air Force base—a pretty typical situation. One job they consistently won and worked on season after season was to manage the predators of endangered nesting seabirds—namely coyotes, ravens, gulls, wild pigs, and potentially bears. Which is where I came in.

I wasn’t allowed to take pictures on base, so this is an unrelated photo of ocelot tracks. All photos in this post will be unrelated, with good reason.

Over several years, I monitored populations, tracked the movements of known predators across Air Force rangeland, evaluated their threats to the protected species, and if necessary I stepped in kill problem individuals. Sorry, I “lethally removed” them, as I was taught to say in reports. With guns. Yeah, I was a government sponsored animal contract hunter. I’m not proud of it.

But a good portion of my job involved roadkill. See, no animal would pass up a free meal, and by using animals that were already dead I could bait potential predators away from seabird nests and better track predators by staking out carcasses. It saved so much time, but it caused me to develop a rather ghoulish association with dead animals by the side of the road. It got to be so that when someone would call me about a fresh kill, my heart would leap at the thought of rushing out to haul away a mutilated deer or pig. I could take a week off my hunting! Maybe it would even still be warm…

Have you picked up yet that this post is going to be really, really disturbing? Here’s your chance to stop reading and think about sloths instead.

I’m afraid I developed an unfortunate local reputation as well. Trust me, you don’t ever want to be “Roadkill Guy.” But it was preferable to the early years, when no one knew of me or what I was doing. Including the cops. The first time I was seen loading a dead deer into my truck, I was arrested. The second time too, come to think of it. And the third. They let me go as soon as they called in to their CO. Only once did they put me in handcuffs. But never did they put me in their car—in fact, as soon as the cuffs were on they usually stayed as far away from me as possible.

Only once it got a little heated. I think the trooper thought I was poaching. Or he took offense to the fact that the deer was too big for me to move by myself, so I was cutting it into pieces right there on the side of the highway. And my only available blade was a machete. Either way, it ended just fine, and he even let me keep the deer chunks after I said I would take care of any more dead animals in his area, since roadkill removal is usually the cops’ job.

Obviously, it didn’t end well for the deer.

I was just doing my job, and trying to be as efficient as possible. Especially since this was roadkill I was dealing with—it doesn’t exactly have a good shelf life. One wild boar had been sitting out maybe a day and a half before I got word. It was so big I thought it was a cow at first. There was no way it was fitting in the bed. Against my better judgement, I tried to tie a rope around it to drag it off, but when I pulled away the rope passed through it. I never went back for that rope.

But usually I’d get there while the animal was still relatively fresh, and only had to chase away a few buzzards to claim it. One time a buddy and I got called by the cops who had just hit the animal themselves—a buck. The body was even intact, with all the injuries internal, and we loaded it up with no issue. However, the drive out to where we wanted to place to body for raven bait was over an hour, and it was Summer. We were so excited to find good carrion that we probably didn’t think this through, even as we dragged the deer out to the spot. My partner had the idea of cutting it open a little to draw the birds in easier.

Seriously–last chance to stop reading right now.

What we weren’t considering was the animal had essentially been mashed by the car. Its insides were a stew of blood and punctured gut. And it had just spent over an hour bloating in the hot sun. By happenstance, I was standing behind the deer’s back as it lay on its side, and my poor coworker was kneeling down by its belly when he cut into it.

The deer exploded. Just popped like a water balloon. Right in his face.

I won’t describe the smell. I won’t describe the sound. But I cannot forget my partner’s face, a look of utter horror, before he started screaming. He had the good sense to open his mouth to do so after the spurting stopped. But I did not share his good sense, and waited only a beat before quoting my favorite Star Wars movie: “And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!”

He was not amused. Neither was his girlfriend, who I delivered him to after figuring out a way to get him into the car. The ride back we kept the windows open. Neither of us said a word.

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