Nearly anyone who has driven has seen it: a dead animal on the side of the road. Fenton resident Jim Marshall was seeing a lot of dead animals last fall — especially deer — and it was beginning to bother him.
Then one day he noticed two deer on the side of Interstate 44 within a few hundred feet of each other.
“One was a doe, and quarter mile down was a buck,” Marshall said. “By Friday, they were still there. I thought they would be picked up over weekend. But on Monday, they were still there. However, someone came by over the weekend and cut off the head. I guess they wanted a trophy.”
The next day, the deer were gone.
The experience prompted Marshall to ask St. Louis Public Radio a question through our Curious Louis project: Who cleans up roadkill, and what happens to it? And why did it take so long to clean up those two deer?
The answer to that last question is that the Missouri Department of Transportation was likely very busy cleaning up roadkill last fall and the crews weren’t able to get to them in a timely manner. While all kinds of animals get hit, deer are the most common victims. What’s more, autumn is rutting season for deer, which means they have one thing on their mind — and it’s not watching out for cars on highways.
According to MoDOT, the number of vehicles that kill deer in October and November is nearly three times higher than the rest of the year.
Who does the deed?
The answer to Marshall’s first question is rather straightforward. People call their local police or animal control department when they spot roadkill, and, if it’s on a locally maintained street, then that municipality picks it up. If it’s on a state road, then MoDOT takes care of it. If it’s in St. Louis County, it’s MoDOT's Southwest Customer Response team.
Deon Morris and David Scales are two members of that team. Their job isn’t just to clean roadkill; it also includes patching potholes and trimming trees — anything that could be considered a hazard. They say whatever the task, it’s a treacherous job.
“Whether it’s a highway or secondary road, this job is always dangerous,” Morris said. “You never know who is distracted, what is going through their minds, what kind of day they’re having.
Morris said the key to staying safe while working is keeping your eyes open, knowing your escape route and working quickly. "Do it and get out of there in certain time — no lingering around and making our chances greater.”
The attention to safety Morris and Scales possess extends to the chore of picking up a dead animal. On a crisp day in March, they received notice of a dead deer on Highway 141 near Carman Road in Manchester. They turn on their work lights as they slow down to find the deer. Once they locate it, they don bright-yellow work vests and hard hats to improve their visibility to drivers.
The deer is not on the road itself but off to the side in the grass. It’s a relatively small deer — Morris estimated it weighed about 80 pounds. Before picking it up, Scales gently nudges the animal with his foot.
“You still want to check the deer out because opossums feed on them, and if you come and grab one too quickly, one may run out,” Scales said. He also said it’s important to check the deer for ticks or other infestations.
Once they determine it’s safe to handle, the men pick the deer up by its legs and carry it to the truck. They lay it on a metal trailer on the back of the truck. The deer isn’t secured to anything, but the sides of the trailer lock down like a basket to ensure the animal can’t fall out. Scales and Morris triple-check that the gates are secure before walking backward — facing oncoming traffic — to get back in the truck.
On that day, the deer carcass didn’t smell particularly bad. For one thing, Morris said, it was cold out, which helps minimize the smell. Also, it hadn’t been dead that long. He knew because the tongue was still soft — it hadn’t hardened yet. And there was no green coloring around the belly. Morris also pointed out the eyes.
“If it’s more of a milky-looking, cloudy white; it’s been out here a while,” Morris said. “This deer’s eyes haven’t dilated; it’s still regular. It probably got killed early this morning.”
When an animal has been dead for a while, and it’s a hot summer day, Morris said the stench can be powerful. On those days, they dab Vicks VapoRub under their noses to block the smell.
What happens to roadkill?
There are options for how to dispose of roadkill. Most commonly, carcasses are taken to an incinerator where they’re burned and forgotten. But several animal sanctuaries, including the Endangered Wolf Center and the World Bird Sanctuary, accept the bodies. They butcher the dead deer, store them in giant freezers and feed them to their carnivores.
There have been times, in the course of picking up roadkill, that Morris and Scales have interrupted carnivores snacking on the carcasses in the wild. Vultures went after Scales once when he tried to pick up a deer. And Morris has firsthand experience with coyotes.
It was late on a Friday when a call about two dead deer came in. The crew had time to pick the bodies up but not to dispose of them. So they covered them up with a tarp and secured it, thinking they would take finish the job the following Monday.
But on that day, Morris said, he was preparing his truck to make sure it was safe for work when he noticed something small and gray running away from the parking lot.
“I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I had put two deer right there,” Morris said.
Now there was only one.
“So when I grabbed it and started dragging it to the truck, then that little gray thing I saw came on top of the hill. He was looking at me. I thought it was a baby wolf,” Morris said. “Then three more came up. I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ I’m standing here with this deer on this truck, looking at those coyotes. First thing I thought is, if they run toward me, I’m hopping in this truck, and I’m driving out. And if they follow me, then I’ll go out on the highway and hopefully they’ll get hit.”
Once he started moving, they all ran away.
For the most part, however, dead animals — be it deer, turtles or armadillo — are removed from roads and disposed of as quickly as possible.
Scales and Morris both said the job was a little hard at first, but they have acclimated. Morris said he sees most animals and recognizes them as just a shell of what was once there. The only time he pauses, is when the animal is a dog.
“I’m a dog lover,” Morris said. “So when you see a dog, it taps into the vulnerable side. I typically have to take a second to look and get past the fact that this is my job.”
Morris said he takes comfort in knowing that for dogs, they aren’t automatically taken to the incinerator. The MoDOT crew always try to contact the owners so they can see their pets and have their final goodbyes.
Despite the sad moments, Morris and Scales said they are genuinely happy in their jobs. They're serving the public, which means a lot to them and their families.
“I get to help people. Whether it’s doing a pothole or just calling a customer back. Just knowing we actually helped someone, I am 100% comfortable with that.”
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