How we got the story dead-on

By Eric Freedman

Is it true that nobody likes roadkill except scavengers – mostly animals but occasionally human. (More on human scavengers later.)


“Learning from Death, my new article in Earth Island Journal, began, as do all stories, with an idea. This one had been germinating for a couple of years after I wrote an article for Great Lakes Echo about a roadkill study in Ontario.

I wondered: What if somebody human other than scavengers likes roadkill? What if the splatter, the gore and the stench don’t matter? What if there are scientists out there who find something valuable in things that the rest of us swerve to avoid?

Lab assistant with roadkill

Lab assistant Ricki Oldenkamp prepares the lymph nodes of a white-tailed deer for analysis in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Disease Lab at MSU. Image: Tony Cepak.

I headed to the database Web of Science, typed in “roadkill” as my search term and, voila, there were studies from Canada and the U.S., Uganda and Portugal, Norway and Brazil, Argentina and Brazil and elsewhere written by researchers who’d found scientific gold in blood, guts and DNA. I read a dozen or so of them and crafted a pitch to the environmental magazine Earth Island Journal. Here’s how I began my inquiry to editor-in-chief Maureen Nandini Mitra, with a working title of “Splush! Thwap! Blam! Ugh!” and a working lead of:

Squished squirrels. Pulverized pigeons. Skewered skunks. Dismembered deer. Chopped-up chipmunks. Flattened frogs. Eviscerated elk. Violated voles. Blasted bunnies. Crushed cats. Mangled moose. Blistered butterflies. Ravaged ravens. Smushed snakes. Motorists swerve to avoid them. Bicyclists wrinkle their noses and hold their breath when pedaling past them. Rats and raptors feed on them. And scientists study them.

She said yes.

Over the next few months I recruited Tony Cepak, a former professional photojournalist and now an MSU doctoral student affiliated with the Knight Center for Environmental Reporting. We lined up a behind-the-scenes tour with lab tech Julie Melotti at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Research Laboratory on the south side of the MSU campus. Watching through a second-floor observation window, we looked down into the lab as a pathology technician pulled lymph nodes out of a white-tailed deer’s head, checking for a contagious neurological disease called chronic wasting disease, which afflicts deer, elk, and moose. Below us, we also saw a pair of severed moose heads, a table stacked with about 16 eagles, three dead raccoons and a cart piled high with more deer heads. We saw an array of other wildlife, including crow, barred owl, Canada goose, possum, bobcat, gray fox, gray squirrel, woodchuck awaiting their turn. We also spotted a wolf’s feet.

I interviewed scientists who wrote some of the roadkill studies — Elizabeth Chadwick who studies otters in the United Kingdom; Chantel Markle, who studies turtles in Canada; David Lesbarrères, who studies insects and frogs in Canada; and Matt McLennan, who studies chimpanzees in Uganda.

I also interviewed a research scientist at the Virginia Department of Transpiration who studies ways to dispose of the abundant deer carcasses that plague her state’s highway crews. Data on deer-vehicle crashes in the U.S. came from State Farm, an insurance company that gathers such information (and pays lots of money in claims each year).

Crafting the article took longer than I’d planned as I wrestled with the question of how best to tie in wildlife and human diseases, traffic safety, habitat degradation and development. My editors were of great help in answering that question.

Early in this post I promised to tell you more about human scavengers. Here’s where I do it, in this excerpt from a sidebar that didn’t run about disposal of roadkill:

For the culinarilly inclined, there’s, which describes itself as “dedicated to providing the road warrior with tasty recipes for their found meat.” It asks, “Why waste your money on a grocery store when you drive past perfectly good food every day?” The website acknowledges, “Some say it is sick. Others say it is gross,” but goes on to say: “Still other people think that eating Road Kill is the ultimate in recycling, ‘Waste not, want not,’ they say.’” Whatever your beliefs, you will need good recipes to make your meal its best.” The website invitingly offers, “Find a recipe for all of your various road kill meats and other ‘exotic’ meats,” with suggestions that include muskrat, moose, pigeon, raccoon, possum and beaver. There are even recipes for skunk skillet stew and French fried skunk.

And I’ll end on that appetizing note

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