Caught in the Headlights
A personal obsession leads one woman into a world of scientists, wildlife rehabilitators and eccentrics who are mesmerized by the often bloody relationship between wildlife and roads
Fifteen years ago, I left my husband, and the West, behind, returning heartbroken to my native Northeast. I felt like I’d been clobbered by the tires of a half-ton truck, and I walked through the world wounded. But I fooled myself into believing I was merely on a temporary solo journey; I kept my grief under wraps. Until the day I ran over a kitten. The little animal had darted out from the weeds, and the driver in front of me also tried unsuccessfully to avoid it. As I felt my tires smash the tiny body, my sorrow hit me, full force.
I sobbed so hard driving home to my cabin that I veered off course, my truck tires hitting the gravel shoulder. There was no oomph in my accelerator foot. My chest hurt from having slept for weeks curling my shoulders around my heart.
I realized then that the only way through my grief was out. My life felt fleeting, miniscule. I had to look out at the world beyond myself.
As I drove home late one night, my headlights illuminated a motionless lump in my lane. It was a red fox. This was no place to end a life. I stopped, got out of my car and lifted the body. It was a recent kill, warm and softer than anything I had ever touched. No wonder people wear fur coats. They ought to wear them outside in, with nothing on underneath.
It draped over my hands, its head as floppy as a newborn’s. I carried it down the bank and placed it beneath a thicket. I left an aster on its breathless body.
After the fox came a porcupine. That, too, I removed from the road. Then squirrels, raccoons, snakes, frogs, weasels, mink, songbirds, chipmunks, even worms. It seemed undignified to leave them; they deserved a more honorable end than being smeared across the asphalt.
I started offering apologies. I wished for an animal’s safe passage, and wished its relatives and descendants adaptation to roads — and I made a plea for human wisdom to set in quick.
A few years later, in graduate school in St. Paul, Minn., my private devotional practice became an obsession. I searched the public library, but found only dissatisfying and paltry information. As spring erupted and animals came out of hibernation, I got very busy peeling carcasses off the pavement. I could not get roadkill out of my thoughts. I had to know how many animals got hit each day. Did cars put certain species at risk? Did anyone out there care enough to do something about it?
Without an itinerary or a single lead, I set out at the end of May on a cold, damp Midwestern day. I headed west again in my aging Volvo with a shovel in the trunk, a new notebook, pens, and a yearning to find people who were doing something with or about roadkill. I stopped in all sorts of places — saloons, flea markets, fish and wildlife offices, highway department garages, diners, art galleries and natural history museums. I went by hunches. I positioned myself on the fringe.
In a Rapid City, S.D., gallery, a fellow told me in a hushed voice about harvesting quills from road-killed porcupines to make jewelry. Like many people I met along the way, he was reluctant to speak openly about his scavenging. Federal and state laws prohibit collection of certain animals, from the road or otherwise. Unless you’re a Native American with a religious permit, it’s illegal to possess an eagle feather. If you hit a deer in Arizona, you can salvage the meat, but in Oregon it’s illegal.
Over grits and hot sauce in a diner in Laramie, Wyo., the father of the carpenter who had taught me how to two-step the night before at the Buckhorn Saloon told me about "green-up." In the spring, land close to the highway heats up faster than higher ground, encouraging all sorts of vegetation to push up through the thawed earth. The yummy greens attract hungry pronghorn and deer, luring them dangerously close to traffic.
Those brief encounters nudged me through a tiny door and into something bigger: a growing network of professionals devoted to exploring the complex relationship between human beings and animals that is created by roads. This work would consume much of the next decade of my life, as I drove tens of thousands of miles and talked to hundreds of people. I wrecked the front end of my Volvo twice, once hitting a buck and later, a fawn. I removed at least a thousand dead animals from the road.
Along the way, I found not only tragedy, but also people who were devoted to preventing roadkill. I also learned a new language, one made of sinew, muscle, bone, feather, blood and gristle.
Art that dies to live
There is a palpable, raw energy beneath the veneer of respectability that the galleries, museum, tchotchke shops and ice cream parlor lend to Madrid, N.M., (emphasis on "Mad"). The former mining town looks like a place where gunslingers and outlaws might drift through, hoping to stir up some trouble.
I was on my first roadkill research trip, headed north from Albuquerque to Santa Fe and trying to avoid interstates, when I landed in this unkempt assemblage of ramshackle buildings. Outside the No Pity Café, a sculpture that bore a vague resemblance to a totem pole caught my eye: a tall tree stump with a gnarled root ball on top, its sides hung with skulls, bones, bits of rusty metal and chunks of broken glass. (I later learned that the sculpture’s name was "Medusa.")
Across the road, at the Jack of All Arts gallery, I found more sculptures by the same local artist: castles fashioned from broken glass, miniature motorcycles made of bones. I had to track down this artist. After a sporadic correspondence by mail, we finally hooked up on my second road trip a few years later.
North of Madrid on State Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail, I met human firecracker Tammy Jean Lange, also known as Tatt2 Tammy from her years as a tattoo artist. Lange is a hyperkinetic Little Orphan Annie, with a head full of red curls and a raucous laugh.
Hers is no ordinary yard. This acre of desert is the site of Tiny Town, an ever-evolving miniature ghost town with its own saloon, church, courthouse, jail — even an auto body shop. A scavenger, Lange uses all sorts of things that would otherwise have ended up in the dump or been abandoned along the roadside. "If it ain’t broken, busted or rusted," she says, she has no use for it. A cast-off skylight forms the roof of the saloon. Tarpaper with a dotted yellow line serves as a road through the miniature ghost town. Broken glass fills three shallow troughs, forming rivers.
Bones, Lange reserves for special purposes.
She cannot drive by a lovely bone, whitened by desert sun, or pass up a beautiful animal carcass. People frequently alert her to dead animals; roadkill provides a nearly ready source of raw materials. She buries the carcasses, to "do what they got to do" — decompose — and later digs them up and cleans and bleaches the bones.
Bones go into motorcycle sculptures, or "Gnarleys," one of which stands, life-size, near the entrance to Tiny Town. On a recent visit, Lange mounted the cow-skull seat, grabbed the antler handlebars with their dangling lace hair scrunchies and Mardi Gras beads, and pretended to rev it up. "My friend put this on the back of his flatbed and he drove me through the parade in Madrid," she says. "Let me tell you, I was the parade."
Lange also uses bones to make the residents of Tiny Town — dolls with names like Bony Rider, who met his doom at the town guillotine, becoming "Basket Case" when Lange caught his remains in a basket. Hidden away in one of the trailers that serves as her studio is her "dominatrix doll," made from bones reassembled into a human form, wearing a hand-sewn black leather jacket, miniskirt and thigh-high boots. A bit macabre, the doll shares the dimensions of Barbie, but not the proportions.
"I resurrect the dead animals and I give them a new life," she says. "It’s art that dies to live."
Entirely self-taught, Lange is an artist with an inner drive. Making art is something she must do, and when she’s not creating, unhappiness and irritability set in. When times get slim, she works as a tattoo artist and landscaper in nearby Portales. But lately, she’s been having a hard time keeping up with the demand for her art.
Several years ago, an art scout saw some of her work and arranged to have Tiny Town boxed and shipped to the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The museum is the first in the country dedicated to "outsider" or "visionary" art, created outside the confines of mainstream "high art." Lange and her mother flew out for the opening, but Lange hid in the basement for the whole event. "I see people when I want to see people," she says. "I just want to make my art."
Cool dead stuff
I knew when I saw the "Welcome to the Snake Pit" sign on biologist Randy Babb’s office door that my hunch had been correct: There was a treasure at the Arizona Department of Game and Fish in Mesa.
As I walked into Babb’s office, a small rattlesnake shook its tail at me from its glass house on the floor, and a turtle crawled around inside a nearby cardboard box. Mounted quail with their question-mark headdresses adorned the wall. Stacks of paper and towers of books hid his desktop.
Babb looked like the kind of person I’d trust to take me on a safari, or a trek into the desert. Trim, clean-shaven and bespectacled, he wore hiking boots, sensible long pants, and a white button-down shirt. As the department’s Information and Education Program manager, Babb’s innate inquisitiveness about all things that squirm, slither, hop, crawl and fly — even after they’ve stopped moving around — serves him well.
Over the course of several years, I’ve tagged along with Babb as he trapped bats, lifted the walls of caved-in buildings to chase lizards, climbed into a dry cistern to retrieve a desert shrew — and caught a myriad of insects to feed that shrew, whose fuel needs rivaled those of the thirstiest SUVs. But some of the most interesting moments have come driving around in search of what he calls "cool dead stuff."
Only a trained eye can distinguish between a stick and a snake from the driver’s seat. Babb, a herpetologist — someone who studies reptiles and amphibians — has an uncanny ability to tell the difference, even at 40 miles an hour.
During the late-summer monsoon season, Babb checks the Internet frequently to watch for storms forming. With his truck packed with the tools of his trade — snake tongs, pillowcases, buckets, and boxes for both live and dead animals — he heads for the areas where a few drops of rain could coax all sorts of creatures out of hiding. He sustains his high energy with Dr Pepper and the gooey orange candy called Circus Peanuts. All food is the same, he says, "microbially speaking."
Some roadkills he gives to schoolteachers, or uses in the educational kits his department prepares for classrooms. "There’s a lot to be learned from looking at animal parts, looking at the beaks of birds or feet and figuring out what they do," he says. "I usually salvage skulls from roadkill. They’re a good way to learn about carnivores or herbivores or omnivores, just looking at the dentition."
Some of the fresher finds end up on his barbecue grill, while others become meals for the snakes and other animals he keeps in a room off his garage, some of them rescued from the roads. Interesting roadkills go into his freezer. A gifted scientific illustrator, Babb prefers to draw his subjects when they’re still. "Roadkill has always been a good way to look at stuff that you never get in hand," he says. "Birds that you see flying over, or animals you just catch a glimpse at — when they’re dead on the road you can look at them close."
Road-killed animals can also serve as the "voucher specimens" that tell scientists where certain species are found. In the 1980s, for example, on a road in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson, Babb found a flattened Mexican opossum. Later, he saw one a few miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The discovery forced Babb to rethink the theory that the animals had been introduced by people into Arizona. He kept records of a number of road-killed opossums, and he shared his unexpected findings with two colleagues, Dan Brown and, later, Jack Childs, who had caught the creatures on camera while researching jaguars crossing the border.
After collecting records and taking pictures, they dug through old records and found an account of Mexican opossums in Arizona as far back as the 1870s. The animal was also mentioned in a journal kept by a trapper in 1825. They concluded that the opossum had likely arrived during a northern emigration 200 years ago from northern Sonora, Mexico, along with javelinas and the raccoon-like coatimundi.
Babb’s hunts for roadkill have given him other insights as well. He says that for wildlife, cities are like bombs: The closer you are to the epicenter, the more destructive the impact. The farther out you go, the richer and more abundant the animal life becomes.
Roads suck the life out of wild places, he says. When rural roads are first paved, they become great places to find cool dead stuff. But that’s only true for a while; then the animal populations sink. He describes a road near Maricopa where sidewinders were once so common that he stopped pulling over for every one. Today, it’s rare for him to see one.
What causes the drop in numbers is open to speculation, he says. Not surprisingly, wild animals shy away from busy roads, but part of the decline in roadkill can probably be attributed to collectors. "The people that field-collect reptiles will seek out these roads," he says. "The animals near the road get collected very quickly, especially anything interesting or unusual."
His remedy for roadkill? "Build less roads, and pave less roads. Leave rural roads dirt, y’know, the ones that are there. There’s a lot of other things that live here other than us, but we never, ever, give them any thought."
"We’re here to mitigate suffering"
I first learned about Kathy Kirsh last summer from my sister Nancy, who lives in Portland, Ore. Kirsh, who provides a sanctuary for abused and orphaned animals just outside Eugene in Veneta, had given Nancy’s 17-year-old son, Dusty — my nephew — a place to stay during the Oregon Country Fair. Throughout the long summer weekend of countercultural vaudeville, originally started by the late Ken Kesey, Kirsh stands by for animal emergencies. This alone relieved my sister. Who wouldn’t trust her child to the kind of person who looks after abandoned Frisbee-catching dogs?
When I finally trekked to Kirsh’s seven-acre compound one December morning not long ago, I found her bundled up against the damp cold, standing on her tiptoes, trying to hang a bird feeder from a low tree branch. Barely five feet tall, her long graying hair tucked into a hat and crow’s feet radiating from her brown eyes, she accepted my help and tried to calm her two dogs: Annie, a stray found near death in a parking lot, and Leah, a dog who did not make the cut as a seeing eye guide. "And that is Uncle Seymour, also a rescue," she said, pointing to a donkey that followed us around surreptitiously.
Twenty years ago, Kirsh saw a seagull with a fishhook stuck in its beak, its neck wrenched around by the fishing line entwined in its legs. She went to pick it up, but the bird tried to fly, and when it lifted off, a car hit it. Kirsh stood helpless and watched it die.
"That seagull really impacted me," she said. After that, she devoted herself to helping abused and injured animals. She apprenticed with animal rehabilitators, read books and passed difficult tests to earn her Oregon Wildlife Rehabilitator permit.
Kirsh has transformed this patch of woods into a refuge, which we tour as the dogs bound ahead. At the top of the hill across from her house is a building that serves as a nursery for baby mammals. Her barn is a shelter for all sorts of wildlife, as well as for the residents of the adjacent "cattery," an astonishing playground for the partly feral cats she’s rescued. Primitive enclosures scattered about the property provide shelter for everything from a gray squirrel to fawns. Many of the animals were injured or orphaned by cars.
Inside her small home, with its antiques and animal knickknacks, Kirsh built a fire in the woodstove. Winter gives Kirsh a chance to catch her breath, to prepare for spring when she sometimes cares for dozens of orphans. "My biggest year, I had 32 raccoon babies, five fawns, and I don’t know how many bush bunnies, flying squirrels, ground squirrels and chipmunks," she said.
Kirsh, a former grade school teacher, is a board member of the Lane County Wildlife Homecare Network. The nonprofit provides injured animals with caging, medication and formula, as well as access to medical care from local veterinarians. Local businesses donate pet food. The Wild Oats grocery store chain donates produce it cannot sell, rather than sending it to the landfill.
Working with animals, Kirsh has learned a great deal about their behavior. Baby animals, especially fawns and raccoons, tend to stay with their mother’s body, she said. This puts the offspring at great risk, especially if the mother’s body is lying in the road. Opossum babies remain hidden inside their mother’s warm pouch.
"Skunks are not very smart. They have tiny brains, poor eyesight and hearing. All they have is the ability to ward off predators and us with their odor," she said. "Deer are without guile. They’re sweet and terribly trusting. Raccoons cry real tears. They get their feelings hurt. They want to be held and cuddled. They’re close to human babies."
Kirsh rarely drives at night, for fear of hitting an animal. She goes long periods without using her car at all. When she does drive, she carries everything she needs to rescue injured animals — a salmon net with a long handle, two sizes of pet carriers, baby wipes for her hands, plastic bags, and elbow-length leather gloves to ward off fangs and claws. Kirsh wishes that more people who hit animals would stop to see if they’re actually dead. If they are, motorists ought to drag them off the road, she says, so that other animals, whether offspring or scavengers, won’t get hit as well.
If an animal is injured she recommends calling the local sheriff or Humane Society for help, because most communities have wildlife rehabilitators experienced with rescues.
"Don’t just toodle on by when you see something struggling, wishing you could do something. Stop. Make a call," she said. "Death is not the worst thing. What’s repugnant is the suffering. They have the same central nervous system as we have. They experience the same pain.
"We’re here to mitigate suffering," she said. "That’s what our opposable thumbs are for."
"A living experiment"
In the shadow of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, where sandstone escarpments rise above a mixed conifer forest, travelers driving from Payson to Heber pass a series of signs modeled after old Burma Shave signs: "THEY SAW AN ELK," reads the first — "OH WHAT A THRILL," says the second — "UNTIL THEY SMASHED IT" — "ON THE GRILL."
The Arizona Department of Transportation put up the signs to urge drivers to slacken their speed. Colliding with a long-legged, 600-pounds-plus elk often kills the animal, and sometimes the motorist, too.
The first time I saw these signs, though, they were punctuated with gore: A bull elk carcass lay stretched beneath the last sign, its organs removed by scavengers. Long black skid marks angled across the road toward the highway’s shoulder.
Trying to change human behavior is often a lesson in futility. So the Arizona Department of Transportation is trying to change animal behavior instead. When it came time to expand this rural two-lane road to accommodate more traffic, the department looked for ways to keep elk from ambling onto the pavement.
Putting up fences alone was not a solution because the animals needed to cross the road. Resident herds make frequent crossings, and migratory herds pass through the area in early spring and late fall. In early 2000, after nearly a decade of planning for this $250 million road project, the scrapers and dozers arrived, not only to pave the way for more vehicles, but also to construct passageways under the road for the wildlife.
Although used in Europe and Canada for decades, wildlife crossing structures are a relatively new feature on American highways. The project’s lead biologist, Norris Dodd of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, says, "The whole thing is a living experiment." Using a process called "adaptive management," he and his research team study elk movement across each section of new highway. Then the team makes design recommendations for the next section, as well as for retrofitting the already-completed part.
The project is important, says Dodd, because it involves all-too-rare cooperation between state wildlife and transportation agencies. And it saves not only lives, but also money: "We are evaluating what works and what doesn’t work to be able to spend wisely."
Last summer, Dodd invited me into the field. With their vanilla rumps, chocolate coats and sculptural antlers, elk are majestic. The fieldwork, however, is hardly glamorous. On a midsummer morning, just after daybreak, we discovered a cow elk in a trap the research team had set the day before, pacing and butting at the nylon webbing that held her captive. Dodd and his colleague, biologist Jeff Gagnon, slipped lariats under the edge of the trap, securing the animal’s left-hind and right-front hooves, then pulled. As the elk’s legs splayed, she slid to the ground.
The elk’s breath was hard, shallow and quick, her eyes on the forest behind us. The biologists pinned her to the ground and blindfolded her, which calmed her, as they fitted her with a numbered ear tag and a radio collar to track her movement. Just minutes later, the elk was released and went racing away across the meadow. The experience was traumatic for the elk, Dodd says, but nothing compared to being hit by a car or truck.
Later in the day, we toured some of the crossing structures, where the researchers get more detailed information from elaborate surveillance systems. Gagnon sets up tiny boxes outfitted with infrared beams. When an animal breaks the beam, it trips a video camera that records it as it approaches an opening, either enters or retreats, and exits the other side. Once the team gathers plenty of footage, they analyze the animals’ behavior to discover what conditions need to be present for elk to brave the new features in the landscape.
What have the researchers discovered? Given the choice of crossing a road or going through a tunnel, elk prefer the former. One section of the road, opened before the fencing was completed, turned into a "slaughter zone," says Dodd, when elk slipped between gaps in the fence and became trapped in the road. No collisions have occurred since the gaps were closed in December, forcing elk to use a nearby underpass.
Elk prefer structures that are natural-looking and have wide openings through which they can see light and cover at the far end. At Little Green Valley, two crossings within a few hundred yards of each another are designed differently, although both are about the same size and lead into the same meadow. Elk shy away from the one with straight, concrete walls and a ledge that might provide a perch for a hungry cougar.
For the resident elk, Gagnon says, the structures have become part of life. The migratory elk hesitate more, but the team expects they will eventually get used to the crossings. The animals have already made 3,000 trips through one finished crossing, where there had previously been a high collision rate.
The work represents a big step forward for the scientific discipline of road ecology. Although in its infancy, road ecology is influencing transportation projects in most Western states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana and Washington. The University of Montana’s Western Transportation Institute and environmental groups like the Wildlands Project, Wildlands CPR, Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, Yellowstone to Yukon, Defenders of Wildlife and San Juan Corridors Coalition all contribute to an emerging groundswell of initiatives devoted to protecting Western wildlife from roads.
"We’ve come a million miles," says Dodd. "We are changing transportation culture."
Like any romance, our love of the road offers mixed blessings — exhilaration, thrills, escape, excitement, danger. Auto mobility seduces us all with an illusion of freedom, but it comes at great cost, and not only at the gas pump: A lot of blood spills for this intoxicating object of affection.
Somewhere along the way we lost touch with our humanity and replaced it with dangerous, unsustainable, self-centered behavior. Too focused on getting quickly to our destination, we forget that there is a vast world teeming with life beyond the view framed by our windshields. But roadkill, which has become as ubiquitous in the landscape as mile markers, offers reminders.
In my worst moments, I’ve thought I must be a freak for being obsessed with roadkill. But my quest has shown me that there are lots of people driven to confront this tragedy head-on, in their own idiosyncratic ways. They have entrusted me with their stories, taken me on trips into the desert, shared meals, and opened their homes and even their hearts to me.
The roadkill community is an underground culture that stretches from coast to coast. It is made up of people who cannot look away from those mangled and eviscerated mounds of animal flesh, lovely pelts draped over jumbled bones, flightless wings bent and fanned out against the ground, and diamond scales that end where a rattle once shook a warning.
These people understand that ignoring this violence only feeds our tendency to look the other way when confronted with violence against other human beings. Our wheeled boxes of mechanized metal disconnect us not only from the natural world, but also from one another.
I am happy to report that I have many more stories to tell about people who are committed to making it safe for animals to walk across this wondrous spinning hunk of heaven to get a drink or find a bite to eat. A species ingenious enough to invent the automobile is certainly capable of devising the means to allow animals to get where they need to go, too.
While we work on this momentous task, I will keep my pitchfork handy to scoop animals from the asphalt and lay them to rest on the porous earth, where their remains will nourish the living. I will continue to offer my apologies, comforted by the knowledge that there are others out there who feel the same way.
The author writes from Bend, Oregon.
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