Road Kill: It's Fresh, It's Organic, It's Free
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Terra, Ursus, Natalie, and other members of the Wildroots Collective in western North Carolina now eat roadkill nearly every day, have a good supply put away in a freezer, and have tried dozens of different species of animals found dead on roadsides.
The Wildroots folks have become enthusiastic promoters of roadkill and work hard to spread information and skills to empower other people to tap into this huge available food supply. Members of the collective do a good bit of traveling on the do-it-yourself skillsharing circuit, teaching people how to judge the edibility of a dead animal on the road and guiding them through the experience of skinning and cleaning a small animal. At the 2005 Food For Life gathering at the Sequatchie Valley Institute/Moonshadow, one of the most memorable events was the hands-on roadkill workshop, in which we learned about the cleaning, skinning, and butchering of roadkill animals. The Wildroots folks brought a roadkill groundhog with them, and our friend Justin, another roadkill enthusiast, brought a squirrel he had found on his bike ride to the gathering. (The more slowly you travel, the more you notice not only roadkill but all sorts of roadside harvesting possibilities.)
People enthusiastically took front-row seats to see these animals get skinned. Some people shuddered in horror, had to look away, or otherwise expressed their squeamishness. But most people watched quietly, fascinated, as Natalie coached Dylan, a previously uninitiated thirteen-year- old (there with his family) through the skinning of the squirrel, and Jenny and Justin skinned the groundhog. Direct experiential education like this can be transformative. Laurel Luddite wrote about her first roadkill butchering experience, "The responsibility made me nervous at first. As I cut I began to feel confident that not only could I butcher this deer, but I could also fulfill my need for food whenever I saw some lying by the side of the road."
Roadkill has been a source of food for poor people since there have been cars. In American culture eating roadkill generally has a pejorative classist connotation, epitomizing ignorant hillbilly behavior. Now Wildroots and other enthusiasts are embracing roadkill with a political ideology, rejecting the values of consumer culture by "transforming dishonored victims of the petroleum age into food which nourishes, and clothing which warms." Beyond ideology, they are spreading practical information and skills to empower people.
Terra's zine, The Feral Forager , offers a basic primer for safely eating roadkill:
Picking up roadkill is a good way to get fresh, wild, totally free-range and organic meat for absolutely free. When you find the roadkill you should try to determine if it is edible or not. If you saw the animal get hit then it's obviously fit to eat (although you may have to put it out of its misery). If the critter is flattened into a pancake in the middle of the highway then it's probably best to leave it. Most of the time (not always), good ones will be sitting off the road or in a median where [they aren't] constantly being pulverized.
Sometimes it can be hard to determine how fresh a carcass is. A lot of factors can contribute to how fast the meat spoils, especially temperature. Obviously, roadkill will stay fresher longer in colder weather and spoil faster in warmer weather. It's best to go case by case and follow your instincts. Here are some considerations to help you decide:
- If it is covered in flies or maggots or other insects it's probably no good.
- If it smells like rotting flesh it's probably spoiled, although it is common for dead animals' bowels to release excrement or gas upon impact or when you move the carcass.
- If its eyes are clouded over white it's probably not too fresh (though likely still edible).
- If there are fleas on the animal there's a good chance it's still edible.
- If it's completely mangled, it's probably not worth the effort.
Rigor mortis (when the animal stiffens) sets in pretty quickly. Most of the animals we've eaten have been stiff. There's no reason to assume the animal is spoiled just because it's stiff. . . .