When it comes to roadkill it can be easy to act as if you have no responsibility.
“To reconnect to the animal, we must become aware of the animals in the psyche … the animal in things, the animal in art, in world, in poems, in dreams, the animal that lies between us and the other.” —Russell Lockhart in Psyche Speaks
Many afternoons after elementary school, my mother would yell “SARAH!” from the kitchen upon opening my lunchbox and finding yet another dead chipmunk. Raised as a preacher’s kid with intimate knowledge of funeral homes, I would insist on the critter’s burial. Unhindered by her protests, my connection with the more-than-human world remained, and I entombed each animal gently in a small service ending with “May the Force be with you.”
Lurking neighbors would inform me, “Those are just animals. They should learn to stay off the road.” Folding my arms across my chest, I felt increasingly disconnected from those around me as I tried to hide what I felt, embarrassed by both my burials and blessings.
Then I met the man who would become my husband. As we were driving one day, he smacked his right hand over his heart. Nervously, I asked him, “Are you okay?” He replied, “I’m sending gratitude for the life of that animal.” I looked out the window, realizing excitedly, he means that dead animal!
I knew I had found my soul mate.
Each year, it’s estimated human motorists in the U.S. kill nearly 400 million animals, leaving them to die on the road. That’s over a million a day. Now compare this statistic: About 37,000 humans die on the roads each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s about 100 a day.
Roadkill breaks my heart because we act as if we have no responsibility. We may feel upset, or sad, or guilty, but often drive off trying to leave the memory behind with the little furry lump. If that body were our baby, friend, or romantic partner, we certainly wouldn’t.
We don’t mean to cause injury and death. Yet, it’s just one of the ways we have become careless about and callous to the other beings we share the planet with as humanity progressively dominates the earth’s resources. According to conservationists James E. M. Watson, director of the Science and Research Initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society, only 23 percent of the world’s land surface is still wild, “A century ago, only 15 percent of Earth’s surface was used to grow crops and raise livestock. Today, more than 77 percent of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87 percent of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities.”
As the area I live in becomes less wild, I spend an increasing amount of time removing dead animals from the roads. If the location seems safe, I pull over. With my hazard lights on, and strategically positioned to be safe from traffic, I grab my gloves and shovel, gently moving the animal off the road into nearby wildness. My childhood prayer has lengthened, but still ends with “May you have a most auspicious next life-time, and may the Force be with you.”
At first, perhaps reminiscent of childhood reprimands, I wondered if I was just an animal lover overdoing it. But the more I talked about these blessings; the more people shared their own stories. It seemed my husband and I were not the only ones concerned about the wildlife metaphorically commuting across our busy roads.
So, perhaps humanity isn’t so callous after all.
Conceivably, there are many more roadside animal blessers roaming the streets. And that thought is encouraging. Acknowledging the suffering around us can increase our ability for empathy and compassion for all beings.
In The Outermost House, naturalist Henry Beston suggested we need a wiser concept of animals, “The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. … They are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time. In that spirit, consider adding some of these conscious driving practices to your commute or travels.
How You Can Help
- Avoid distracted driving. Ditch the phone. Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk.
- Slow down. Lowering your vehicle’s speed gives you more time to react when an animal enters the roadway.
- Ditch the car for short, local trips. According to a study by Dutch biologist Arnold van Vliet, drivers kill 2 insects per 6.2 miles on a car’s front license plate alone.
- Keep your companion animals safe. The American Humane Society reports that each year an estimated 100,000 dogs die from riding in truck beds. Thousands of animals die yearly from being left in vehicles. According to PETA, animals left in a car “can sustain brain damage or even die from heatstroke in just 15 minutes.” Cracking the windows is not a solution. The ASPCA notes, “Even with the windows cracked, the temperature inside a car can rise from 80 degrees to 112 degrees in less than thirty minutes.”
- If you see a hurt animal. Get tips for determining if an animal is orphaned or injured⎯and how to safely get help for it⎯in the state-by-state guide to wildlife rehabilitators available from The Human Society of the United States. Save the local number in your phone or keep it in your car.
- If you see a dead animal. Offer a blessing when you see a passed animal on the road. Blessings can be done anywhere, by anyone; you don't have to be clergy or call on any specific religious tradition. In his book Blessing: The Art and the Practice, American spiritual philosopher and self-described practical mystic David Spangler explains, “A blessing is a flow of life force between ourselves and others or between ourselves and the sacred. It’s an act of connection. It restores through love a circulation of spirit among us that may have become blocked, forgotten, or overlooked. It reconnects us to the community of creation.” Consider what words or actions you could use or do to honor the animal.
- See the animal in everything.