Roadkill on the Railroad Means Free Dinner

We lived on the outskirts of Philadelphia, on the edge of a nature center. The deer there cause all kinds of problems: car wrecks, Lyme disease, destroying people's shrubbery. So my dad didn't feel at all bad when he could get a fresh one off the...

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Nov 24 2014, 5:30pm

Vultures circled my childhood home. We lived on the outskirts of Philadelphia, next to a nature center and a commuter rail line. White-tailed deer were plentiful in those woods, and many that ventured into the neighborhood lost their lives staring down a speeding train. The fetid smell of carrion in the morning confirmed what was hinted at by the vultures' vigil: another deer, dead on the tracks.

The deer run freely through the nature center, solo or in large groups, with no predators to speak of. While there are plenty of foxes, they are far too small to concern a full-grown deer. And there is a rumored coyote, which could take a fawn or two if it actually exists, but either way isn't making much of a dent in the population. I thought some wolves or a mountain lion might do the trick, but such predators might not be welcome in a major metropolitan area, especially once people's dogs and children started disappearing.

A century ago, deer were so scarce in Pennsylvania that the state game commission actually imported them to bulk up the population. It worked, and then some.

As a consequence of the lack of predation, the deer grossly overpopulate the area, much to the detriment of the local shrubs and ground cover. It almost belies belief that a century ago, deer were so scarce in Pennsylvania that the state game commission actually imported them to bulk up the population. It worked, and then some.

WATCH: The Roadkill Connoisseur

Sure, the deer are majestic and beautiful and all that, but they are a nuisance to live with. Come fall when they have already gobbled up any last hint of green in the nature center, they venture out among the houses to stave off starvation, leading to a mass slaughter of hostas and azaleas. The adventurous animals are also a frequent cause of car wrecks on the roads, in addition to the aforementioned carnage on the tracks. I would think they must traumatize the train conductors, except the collisions are so frequent at this point that the event might be ignored as one of no more consequence than squishing a bug on the windshield.

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The deer also spread ticks carrying Lyme disease, the potentially debilitating neurological ailment common in the northeast United States. In fact, to this day my biggest claim to fame in life is that I was the first recorded pediatric case of Lyme in Philadelphia history, when I was six years old. In the ensuing years, just about the whole neighborhood has come down with it.

Humans are fighting back, where we can. A few hunting stands dot the woods, safely away from the trails where the children and elderly stroll. Over the years the nature center has allowed bow hunters into the property to try to cut back on the population. The culls are controversial, however, and often spark protest from some of the neighbors who would rather the deer die by car, train, disease, or starvation than by hunter's arrow.

Convincing a deer to use a condom is no easy task.

The issue looms in a more high-profile way just up the river in Valley Forge, where George Washington spent a winter with the Continental Army. Now the land is a national historic park, and the soldiers have been replaced by deer. Damage to the plant life was becoming so bad that the federal government brought in sharpshooters to thin the herd, and thin it they did. An estimated population of 1,277 in 2010 has been reduced to 260 as of this summer, with another round of culling coming soon.

Animal rights groups were outraged. Some came up with a scheme to provide birth control to the deer as an alternative to killing them, but they were unpersuasive. The population was already way too high, and besides, convincing a deer to use a condom is no easy task. Plus, as a result of the cull, a lot of hungry people have had venison to eat. Over four years, the program has yielded over 20 tons of meat for local food banks.

Deer meat enthusiasts don't have to resort to a food bank, even if they aren't hunters themselves. About 1.2 million deer are killed in vehicle accidents in the United States each year, according to insurance company estimates, nearly half of them in October and November. As long as you collect the corpse quickly, before it has a chance to stiffen or bloat, it should be good eating. Make sure that the guts didn't burst in the accident, which can taint the meat with contaminants, and cook it to at least 160 degrees. Be aware that laws vary, with some states requiring roadkill harvesters to acquire a permit, and a few outlawing the practice entirely.

My dad, raising a family on a firefighter's salary, would occasionally harvest a deer off the railroad tracks if he could get it fresh enough. Venison stew became a staple of childhood. Before he could provide for his family, though, he had to learn the tricks of the trade. Fortunately several of his coworkers were seasoned hunters, so when he got his first carcass he took it down to his firehouse in North Philadelphia. Although not far geographically, North Philly was worlds apart from our leafy neighborhood. The former manufacturing center was spotted with burned-out warehouses, boarded-up row homes, drugs, poverty, violence, and families struggling to hold on. For the most part, the firefighters were accepted in the neighborhood, although their vehicles were occasionally the subject of petty vandalism.

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My dad brought the deer in one winter's evening, and his colleagues instructed him on the finer points of skinning it. Once the guts were out and the hide removed, they hung the carcass out the second-story window to cure in the cold air.

During the night two of the local guys came banging on the door until one of the firefighters opened it. "What the hell is hanging from the window?" one of the men asked. "Is that a dog?"

The fireman didn't miss a beat. "Yeah, that goddamn Dalmatian wouldn't stop shitting on the firehouse floor. So we showed it!"

The men backed away, wide-eyed. "Wow! You firemen hard!" they exclaimed. "You hard!"

For weeks afterward, nobody stole the batteries out of the firefighters' cars in the parking lot. And we got our family venison. The vultures, tirelessly soaring over the neighborhood, would have to wait another day.