Roadkill Ethics

» May 7th, 2014

“She told us that thirteen automobiles had passed there in the last two years, five in the last forty days; she had already lost two hens and would probably have to begin keeping everything penned up, even the hounds.”

–William Faulkner, The Reviers


Roadkill fascinates me. As the Faulkner quote suggests, it’s been around as long as cars, perhaps earlier. Of course, it’s sad. But not so sad that I stop and deal with the drama as if it were a human corpse splayed on the hardtop.  It’s also inevitable–at least as long as humans persist in propelling themselves rapidly through space.

Municipal governments, many of whom nobly construct wildlife passages to minimize roadkill, dispose of it in a weird variety of ways. They incinerate roadkill, feed it to zoo animals, bury it, and toss it in landfills. Some places just leave the animal on the ground to decompose or evolve into vulture fodder. Increasingly, though, some are asking an interesting question: why shouldn’t humans eat it?

“Roadkill cuisine” has a Wikipedia page. There are roadkill cookbooks. Some states—yes, it’s typically states that have the last word on the fate of roadkill—offer “roadkill lists” that people sign up for to receive fresh deliveries after the state has retrieved and butchered the animal. In other states, when drivers hit a deer they’re permitted to take home the carcass and eat the meat. There’s actually such a thing as “roadkill couture”—a fashion forged  in fur that’s supplied by animals accidentally run down in darkness or fog. Or by somebody texting.

Can vegans maintain their ethical position and still eat this unintended consequence of mechanized brute-force mobility? Don’t dismiss the question. I realize, of course, that eating roadkill would disqualify one, technically speaking, as a vegan. But definitions are overrated. So, in fact, I do think it’s legitimate to oppose raising animals for food (always) while, at the same time, eating a squirrel burger sourced from local asphalt. Would I eat roadkill? I would, if it’s safety could be guaranteed (and it was prepared in a palatable manner). But would I eat a human run over by a truck? No. Not unless I had to in order to survive.

I’ll admit that this refusal to eat one form of flesh and not the other potentially represents an ethical inconsistency, one that certainly carries more than a whiff of speciesism. I tend to trust my disgust meter as a fair indicator of what’s right and what’s wrong. But in this case it’s letting me down, or at least leaving me confused. Why does it go haywire over humans but not raccoons, given that I believe neither could be ethically raised to eat, but both could be ethically run down (accidentally) and processed into an edible object?


25 Responses to Roadkill Ethics

  1. No, just no. I would not eat roadkill. Quite apart from the fact that I have no desire to eat an animal however sourced, I would not eat uninspected meat (even when I was at one time a meat-eater). I worked for years in a pathobiology lab, so I have a healthy respect for pathogens. Anyone see pictures of squirrels afflicted with their obligate parasite the subcutaneous bot fly larvae? No? Well it’s totally offputting to say the least.

    Part of THE reason I don’t eat meat is because of meat-borne parasites.

  2. Ronnie Greene says:

    I could not eat roadkill.
    Eating roadkill is another disrespect for the animal. Squished, spattered, splayed by the side of the road.
    I wonder how & why the animal is mostly by the road’s
    side. Was it hit & flung? Did the animal drag itself, injured, dying, seeking safety?
    And too many are purposely hit for “fun!”
    I have a certain respect for “roadkill.” These are dead beings deserving of dignity. I carry gloves & warm towels in my car. If possible, I stop to see if the animal is still alive. If so, cover the animal, soothe, call animal control. If dead, I return the animal back to nature. To the adjacent woods.
    The animal deserves not to decay & rot by the side of the road. Ethics. Dignity. A sentient being.
    James, this is my “disgust meter.”

  3. Pauline says:

    I can’t say better than the previous commentators and am surprised to hear of any vegan who would eat roadkill. Would you honestly rip the skin off the animal and then rip the flesh off the bones and cut it up, just as dealing with any other inanimate object?

    I haven’t eaten flesh for nearly 40 years and have absolutely no desire to eat it. If I ever see a dead animal by the roadside (not often, as I don’t have a car and am thus rarely in the vicinity where I might see dead animals), I am overwhelmed with sadness, that another animal has fallen victim to the destructive human way of life. If I occasionally find small dead rodents or birds in my garden, I solemnly bury them with deep regret that another animal who wanted to live, who may have had family and whose life was of value (and not simply as a commodity), has been lost.

    All animal life is related and the animal that has died is our evolutionary cousin. It’s only because humans like to categorise and put other creatures in boxes separate and distinct from ourselves (especially when it’s convenient), that we can readily think of them as food. But, when I look at an animal, dead or alive, I never think of food.

    No, I have no desire to eat flesh. Especially when I am not starving and there are myriad tasty and nutritious alternatives. Rest in peace dear friend who has been killed.

  4. Laura says:

    I find dead bodies saddening and I want to honor the former life by treating his/her body with respect, say, proper burial (to feed some plant-life), cremation, or perhaps offering the body to a hungry, real carnivore like a cat. If starving, I’d reluctantly prepare, cook and eat an already dead animal if there was NO other source of food; but it would be an unpleasant experience.

  5. Mountain says:

    “Can vegans maintain their ethical position and still eat this unintended consequence of mechanized brute-force mobility?”

    It seems to me they can, but I don’t see why they would. After all there are plenty of human omnivores (and other animals) who are happy to eat roadkill. Absent extreme poverty or starvation, I don’t see why a vegan would break the habit of not consuming animal products, even in a case like this where it does no harm.

    “But would I eat a human run over by a truck? No.”

    But would you accept transplanted corneas (or plasma, or a liver) from a human run over by a truck? I would. I suspect the disgust at eating a human isn’t due to speciesism, but to repulsion for cannibalism– a repulsion that is widespread across species and cultures. As long as you’re cool with other animals feeding on a roadkilled human, it doesn’t look like speciesism to me.

    • Rhys Southan says:

      I agree. Cannibalism is a deeply embedded taboo, and disgust doesn’t tell us everything or even much about what’s ethical or not ethical — unless one has an entirely disgust-based epistemology, which I don’t think James does.

      Inconsistency about which kind of roadkill (human or non-human) was *ethical* to eat might, however, be speciesist. If you (James, even though I’m responding to Mountain) thought it was ethical to eat non-human animal road kill but unethical to eat human roadkill, that might be speciesism. But even that would depend on your reasoning. If you thought the latter was unethical because it would upset the surviving human family members of the person who had been run over, that would be a non-disgust-based reason not to eat human roadkill that wouldn’t necessarily apply to non-human roadkill. Most likely, the remaining family or friends of the non-human roadkill probably wouldn’t be especially upset to learn that the body of their already dead comrade had vanished from the spot of death, perhaps to be eaten. They might not know about the vanishing at all, and they also couldn’t know what it meant.

      But maybe anti-eating-roadkill vegans could make the argument that in fact eating roadkill of all animals is unethical because the remaining animals find out about it and get even more upset. But unless these animals have burial rituals or some other way of respecting and acknowledging their dead, this seems like a stretch. Plus, if it’s unethical to remove roadkill for the purpose of consumption because it interrupts animals’ ability to mourn their lost friend, it would be unethical to remove roadkill for the purposes of clearing the road or anything else, because that too would interrupt animal mourning.

      • Jennifer Mora says:

        Rhys, Have you seen this presentation by Dr. Milton Mills called Meat Eating and the Biology of Disgust? He makes a case that there is a biological and psychological basis for our disgust with animal products. I’d say it is pretty compelling.

        Regarding animals missing their friends, you have made this case before in our disgussion on cows. And the comparison you used then was to a friendship ending (when animals are not there the next day or are taken away). Relative to this discussion, if you speak with any wildlife rehabilitator, they will tell you about the network of families and how these animals help each other survive, as families and across different species. Humans have made Earth uninhabitable for so many of its other creatures. In many areas, it is a death trap. Perhaps wild animals accept death more readily and “move on” (when there are no children or “spouse” to leave behind) because it is a routine experience. Human beings could change their overall view towards nonhuman animals’ death as another “use” for our purposes to something else entirely and this would come about as respecting that animal species’ existence. What we would do if we were to run over a human being versus a no human animal reflects the extent of our own lack of understanding of nonhuman animal lives and behavior.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      “It seems to me they can, but I don’t see why they would.”

      Why not?

      Some vegans enjoy eating natto – a food I find repulsive. I am sure that there are vegans who would enjoy venison if it were properly prepared and seasoned.

      • Mountain says:

        “Why not?”

        Well, I certainly think they should be allowed to if they want to– a breakfast of natto, roadkill, and durian fruit, perhaps. I just don’t think any vegan should feel some kind of duty to partake of roadkill for ethical reasons.

        But yeah, if someone actually desires roadkill venison, and is a vega for ethical or environmental reasons, I don’t think it violates their principles to do so.

  6. Sailesh Rao says:

    Strange that you are concerned about roadkill but not about the deaths of countless beings through the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer run-offs in GMO-based industrialized agribusiness.

  7. James says:

    Thanks for the comments (I’m not being facetious–thank you).

    With respect, allow me to summarize the proposed grounds of disagreement to my hypothesis that it could be ethically acceptable to eat roadkill: a) it’s possibly unhealthy; b) the remote possibility that the animal was purposely killed; c) the questionable idea that humans are not part of nature and thus an animal cannot be “returned” to nature via our gut; d) the claim that a dead animal is somehow not inanimate; e) a begging of the question of what it means to be vegan (i.e.; “vegans don’t do that” rather than “why should vegans not do it?”); and the claim that I don’t care about people harmed by industrial ag (based on the faulty assumption that all of industrial ag’s problems are related to GMOs).

    The question of organ transplants, though, gets us closer where we need to go— a less idiosyncratic justification for not eating animals. I consider it to be very important that vegans be prepared to base their choices in rationales that are as objective as possible. I’m intrigued by the roadkill hypothesis not because I Like to make readers mad, or disgust them, but because, while I would like to argue that it’s just as unethical to eat roadkill as it is to eat a farm raised animal, I cannot. And that gives me pause.

    This isn’t to suggest that emotion, passion, and personal preference should not contribute to a choice to avoid eating animals. They should. Rather, I want to float the idea that, for even the strictest vegan, it may be acceptable to eat animals that were unintentionally killed or—maybe I should have used this example to begin with—died a natural death (violently or not).

    There are benefits to being flexible but also ethically consistent. The blanket requirement that it’s never ever okay to eat animals might not only be philosophically untenable, but it assuredly alienates people who would otherwise be open to the idea of not eating animals that were intentionally killed for food.

    Anyway, it’s time for me to go running. . ..

    • Dylan says:

      Is this basically the same ageless question on whatever or not vegans should eat the veggie burger that the waiter accidentally put cheese on?

      • James says:

        I think the comparison is a weak one, if only because the site of the accident differs in each case. For the cheese on the bean burger, you have food prep error, not the point of cheese production. For the roadkill, the accident itself produces the food.

    • Rucio says:

      Eating roadkill makes one a carnivore, which obviates being a vegan.

  8. Ellen K says:

    As some will object to the violence inherent in both the word “roadkill” and how the animal was killed, how about making the question more neutral and therefore harder? i.e., What would be ethically wrong with eating the remains of an animal found dead in the woods of peaceful natural causes? (besides possibly depriving needy vultures and beetles of a meal) Or the body of a companion animal who came to the end of his or her life? How would you have felt about grilling the body of Mango? If the last two make you squirm, why?

  9. John Maher says:

    Roadkill presents a different ethical problem: by consuming it is one stealing the diner of an obligate carnivore who has adapted to roadkill as a means of sustenance? Coyotes, foxes, etc. In a sense it is a consequentialist subset of the Predation Problem already discusses in Eating Plants several; times. I ask how this is different from ostensibly vegan freegans who happen upon sausages in a dumpster?

    Mountain seems to have a problem with cannibalism. I refer him to Cora Diamond’s essay ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’ and Montaigne’s writings on same. If we are treating likes alike, as Diamond points out, what has more human specific amino acids than humans?

    Is this column possibly related to JMcW’s book on philosophers who argue if vegans may ever advance ethical arguments to eat meat?

    Organ transplants and xenoptransplants are more ethically wrong than eating dead flesh because they involve taking life (xenotransplants such as pig heart valves). By this reasoning organ transplants are obviously less problematic when sourced from dead humans than living.

  10. James says:

    Obviously, the Predation Problem is the right way to push back against my question. I need to look more carefully into what animals besides vultures are dependent on roadkill for sustenance. That said, how would the predation problem differ for plants? Could you not also argue that modern agriculture–hell, even foraging—denies obligate herbivores their share of morels and fiddleheads?

    • Mountain says:

      Color me skeptical about (all things, but especially) the ethical problems of eating roadkill. First, what obligate carnivore depends on it for sustenance? The coyotes and foxes mentioned by Jaunty Marr are omnivores, getting by just fine on plants (though they show a clear preference for meat). Second, even obligate carnivores (like turkey vultures) have a wide array of choices in woodlands and farmland, and don’t depend on roadkill for sustenance. Third, even if a mythical creature existed that depended on roadkill for its existence (let’s call it a unicorn), the majority of roadkill actually dies out if sight of the road. Humans only see the roadkill who are killed instantly. The majority are wounded fatally, but not immediately, and drag themselves “back to nature” before dying. The mythical obligate carnivore roadkill-dependent unicorn may subsist on those carcasses.

      So, if no one depends on it, the only ethical objection is that you’re consuming nutrients and calories someone else could have consumed. In that case, so what? First, consuming cultivated food instead does far more harm. Second, even cultivated food that does virtually no harm (like a hand-tended organic garden) still deprives others of that space and those nutrients. Finally, first come, first served. If they wanted that roadkill, they should have got there first. And in the case of the turkey vulture, whose sense of smell crushes yours, he undoubtedly did.

      • John Maher says:

        So little time to engage today . . .

        1. In the end the Bacteria get the bulk of the calories and non-caloric nutrients no matter who eats the roadkill.

        2. Part of the problem is that the ecosystem has been disturbed and now roadkill exists in abundance while large predators such as wolves have been extirpated.

        3. M’s comments re: cultivated food are spot on and address JMcW’s concerns. All modern agriculture is wrong and harms the system and species as well as the individual animal. The French government announced a plan to save the Alsacian hamster by asking farmers to plant vegetables the hamster is fond of between rows of monocultures maize (used for feeding pigs and extremely wasteful EU subsidized biofuel).

        4. Humans should aspire to be vegans in practice, The harm of eating roadkill goes to how many exclusions one makes and I maintain that while it may be “less wrong” to eat roadkill it is more wrong to each roadkill than a plate of veggies because a) one is depriving the predators/scavengers (BTW foxes and coyotes are not really omnivores, as are bears for example, except for eating dump items such as old pizza or the alimentary contents of prey animals such as deer) of their place in the adapted to anthropocentrism food chain.

        4. Thus humans eating roadkill really is stealing from a predator. Thus, the entire M ‘dibbs’ argument of who got there first excludes the fact that some species of predator is dependent upon the roadkill.

        5. James question above about plants and modern agriculture is a complex question which is insightful but should properly be responded to in its component parts. I think it might contain an inherent assumption or desire (correct me if I am wrong) that harms must be balanced in a way that kills the fewest animal although consequentialy other types of harms may be produced. This means that “modern ag” may reduce some harms (I believe that modern ag causes only more harms by producing “more” which is destructive at a system level) produces consequential harms such as the fiddlehead example above (Ramps are in season now in the Northeast).

        6. David G. Ritchie in 1894 in response to Victorian proto-vegetarian Henry Salt:

        in our exercise of our power and in our guardianship of the rights of animals, must we not protect the weak among them against the strong? Must we not put to death blackbirds and thrushes because they feed on worms, or (if capital punishment offends our humanitarianism) starve them slowly by permanent captivity and vegetarian diet? What becomes of the “return to nature” if we must prevent the cat’s nocturnal wanderings, lest she should wickedly slay a mouse? Are we not to vindicate the rights of the persecuted prey of the stronger? or is our declaration of the rights of every creeping thing to remain a mere hypocritical formula to gratify pug-loving sentimentalists

    • Ellen K says:

      I was kinda kidding about leaving obligate carrion scavengers to go hungry but appreciate M’s and JTM’s expansion of this (also point about bacteria winning in the end)

      In any case, my point in asking about other dead animals (assuming one would abhor even the idea of eating one’s own dead dog or parrot) was to suggest that there may be various valid reasons not to eat them (emotional, spiritual, nutritional, and consistency of practice) but I’m at a loss to find a solid purely ethical rationale not to do so.

    • Rhys Southan says:

      I agree, James (and Mountain), the vegan argument that we shouldn’t remove roadkill because we’re stealing food from other animals seems like an ad hoc rationalization for the vegan who objects to eating roadkill and is grasping for an explanation. Some vegans also make this argument against freeganism and eating meat from a dumpster: some dogs, cats or birds could have eaten that meat if humans didn’t. The implication of this argument is that humans shouldn’t take food that other animals could have eaten. But to be consistent with this argument, we would have to stop foraging, we would have to stop cultivating land for crops, and we would have to stop taking those crops for ourselves: other animals could have used that space, and other animals could have eaten those crops. If humans shouldn’t take what other animals could have used, we basically shouldn’t exist… unless we manage to find a food that humans and only humans could live on.

      Sentience matters in veganism. Plant aren’t sentient, so it’s okay to kill and eat them. But dead animal bodies are non-sentient as well. That’s true of roadkill and that’s also true of the dead bodies of animals who were raised for food, and of hunted animals. Therefore, what typically makes vegans object to the consumption of non-sentient animal flesh is what transpired to make that flesh non-sentient. Plants start off non-sentient, so there’s no real issue there (putting aside questions about habitat, competition for resources, etc). With raising animals for food, the problem is that farm animals typically suffer a lot throughout their lives, and then are killed on purpose for food. With hunting, the problem is that animals are killed on purpose for food, and might suffer as they die. It’s of course true that once these animals are dead, not eating them won’t bring them back to life. But the idea is that eating this non-sentient flesh might — through market demand or the legal allowance of hunting — encourage future suffering and death.

      Roadkill is where it gets weird because most vegans do not object to the situation that causes roadkill: that humans build roads and drive cars through areas where non-human animals might be. Since vegans do not typically object to eating non-sentient matter, and since vegans do not object to humans making roads and driving cars, the vegan arguments against eating roadkill (which is non-sentient) aren’t going to make a lot of sense. It would be like saying that it’s okay to kill animals accidentally in the production of crops for human consumption, but not if we then turn around and eat those accidentally killed animals. Such an argument will inevitably be odd and inconsistent. Or maybe just based on disgust.

      How can you object to eating roadkill if you don’t object to waiting until the roadkill rots and fertilizes the ground and then eating the plants that grow from the nutrients once contained in the dead animal body? Though one looks like an animal and one looks like a plant, neither are sentient; yes, the animal body “used to be sentient,” but you could in some sense say the same about the plant, as it is composed in part of molecules that formerly constituted the animal body. Objecting to eating roadkill, but not to the situation that causes roadkill — nor to eating the plants fertilized by roadkill, nor to generally eating plants that other animals could have eaten — leads to a very weird philosophy. It’s not even a philosophy so much as a command: “Don’t eat anything that comes from something that used to be sentient and still has the form of that previous sentient creature.” But what possible ethical basis could there be for such a command?

      The best argument against eating roadkill that fits with the intent-based vegan objections to eating farmed animals or hunted animals would be to say that encouraging the consumption of roadkill could incentivize the creation of more roadkill. In other words, eating roadkill causes more suffering and death than not eating roadkill. But this is unlikely to be true, since purposely running over animals is dangerous and likely to damage one’s car. Anyway, this would be a form of hunting and is not what that the “is it okay to eat roadkill?” question is asking.

      • James says:

        This is great, and your last point about incentivizing leads to Ellen’s point about natural death. Replace roadkill with animal death without human intervention, and it becomes even harder to ethically oppose eating an animal’s body under such circumstances.

      • unethical_vegan says:

        “Roadkill is where it gets weird because most vegans do not object to the situation that causes roadkill: that humans build roads and drive cars through areas where non-human animals might be. ”

        I do.

        Estimates suggest that motorists kill hundreds of millions of animals each year in the USA alone (more than hunting or lab research):

        Considering that these statistics exclude insects and most smaller birds the toll is likely far higher.

        Moreover motorvehicle exhaust is a major contributor to the ongoing mass extinction:

        • James says:

          Sure, but can you realistically envision a future without mechanized mobility? Don’t we have to keep our prescriptions rooted in reality?

        • Mountain says:

          I don’t actually object to roads and driving, but you make a very good point that it’s the road-building and the driving causing the harm, not the eating of roadkill. Also, while I don’t object to driving, it is important to acknowledge the harm it causes, and to try to minimize the harm one causes. Like James says, I can’t imagine a world without mechanized mobility, but I can imagine a world in which people are less wasteful with it.

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