Vultures, Ethics, And Roadkill
The subject of non-human victims of car accidents (often referred to as “roadkill”), much like the subject of food waste, may be a tough one for some animal advocates to parse ethically: on the one hand, there is no animal lover that wants to see animals hit by vehicles, as much as this may be an inevitability in a car-focused culture (and some people seem intent to make it happen); on the other hand, the question of what we do with animals once they are killed by vehicles is a more complicated question to answer. Should we collect them and send them to landfills? Should we collect them and consume their meat so they aren’t “wasted”? Should we leave their bodies for scavengers such as vultures to eat?
“What is the most respectful thing to do with roadkill” is the central question of this article from Discard Studies, which hopes to outline “an ethical approach to roadkill that considers the vultures as well as the deer.” The author begins this exploration of the subject with a story detailing a trip to the dump with a local Pennsylvanian man named Bill, who fills his truck with deer bodies he finds on the road. The author accompanies Bill on this run of about 2,300lbs of dead meat to the landfill, and ponders how many of the vultures at the dump could be fed with such a haul. The author notes that it’s not just vultures: before the bodies were picked up, other scavengers fed on them, as well as bugs and maggots. “If scavengers had property rights,” the author notes, “Bill would be out of a job.”
This ride-along brings up a host of ethical questions that the author then explores further: what is the morality of turning dead deer into “zoological garbage,” and is there a way to respect dead animals in a way that also respects the other animals and organisms that eat them? The author notes that “this wider, multi-species understanding of respect does not preclude us from eating roadkill, composting it, or otherwise using it for our purposes,” but that if we take such an ethic seriously, we will “often be obliged to leave a carcass for the vultures and the foxes and the maggots and the beetles and all the other hungry creatures with whom we share this world.”
From a more practical perspective, the author notes, “in an era of tight budgets,” allowing wild scavengers to deal with dead animals – once they’ve been removed from the road so that scavengers aren’t as prone to suffering the same fate – may be both ethical and cost-effective. The author, in a poignant passage that certainly echoes some thinking about farmed animals, explains:
Why do we dedicate so much time, money, and sheer physical exertion to transforming carrion into trash? The most common explanation I’ve heard is aesthetic. Understandably, rotting carcasses disgust many people. They don’t want to see them or smell them or watch vultures tear them apart. Some people may also prefer not to be reminded of their own mortality, particularly when they’re driving. And maybe some people think it’s disrespectful to allow a carcass to rot on the side of the road.
For animal advocates, the article brings up a range of issues that are worth considering, but may be hard to change. The author concludes the article by stating clearly that they don’t think animals hit by cars are “a good thing” because they feed scavengers, but rather “that good things can come out of bad things, and we make a bad thing worse when we prevent this from happening.” They note that we should certainly be trying to reduce the number of animals collectively killed on roadways, but asserts that “each death we cannot prevent provides an opportunity for new life, if only we allow natural processes to unfold.” Indeed, animal advocates and many others may shudder to think about bodies rotting by the side of the road. However, according to this article, it may be just the thing that causes us to slow down and take pause, in more ways than one.