If A Deer Dies In The Woods Should Anyone Eat It?

» May 8th, 2014


As Rhys Southan reminds us, a cogent objection to eating roadkill is that doing so might incentivize carnivorously-inclined drivers to run over animals on purpose. One envisions a bunch of bubbas hunting big game with old trucks equipped with cattle guards. In fact, the more I contemplate the option, the more I find myself appreciating its likelihood. Recall, this blog hails from the Lone Star State. Plus, one study found that 2 percent of drivers swerve not to avoid turtles, but to crush them. Pitchfork readers: I do not joke.

So, lets’s shift the terms of the hypothesis and ask if it’s ethically problematic to consume animals that have died natural deaths—that is, death without significant human intervention, such as involuntary vehicular homicide. The circumstances of this death could be violent—the losing deer in a fatal rutting match—or it could be peaceful—the death of an old moose whose body simply decided to quit.  Despite the perception that nature is brutal—and, of course, it is to a point—a lot of wild animals check out as a result of a natural death. It’s not unusual for deer to live 18 years in the wild, or for pigeons to live for 15.

Why should humans not compete with ants and vultures for this carrion? Scavenging for dead animals might not only be ethically acceptable, but it could have several advantages for animals. If we limited our choice of animal products to what we could forage, there’d be an incentive to preserve wilderness habitats, thereby enhancing biodiversity while ensuring that we could eat increasing amounts of meat. Sourcing more calories from forest fauna would also take pressure off plant-based agriculture, thereby reducing the deaths of animals caught in the onslaught of harvesters and spray guns. We would also eat animals with humility under such circumstances, if for no other reason than the fact that, as foragers, our talents would come nowhere near those of ants and vultures. Finally, the flesh we ate would be healthier than what’s now available—free of antibiotics, vaccines, hormones, and other diseases causes by domestication.

I’m starting to wonder: can one be a vegan and a forager of dead animal flesh?


44 Responses to If A Deer Dies In The Woods Should Anyone Eat It?

  1. Ethically, I don’t see much of a problem. But my reaction is still, “why should I, when I don’t need to?”

  2. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    Interesting ponder, although I think most folks can speak only for themselves.
    As an initiate vegetarian, I’ve discovered a few oddities emerging in my every day life:
    I cook ‘orthodox’, my vegetarian on one side of the stove, my family’s omnivorous on the other. It wasn’t a conscientious decision, but rather a strange little evolution. It works.
    I’ve lost, almost without effort, a rather significant amount of weight since eschewing animal flesh.
    Our grocery bill has become almost manageable. Even with the increase in fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains, less meat is less money, no matter how you look at it.
    And finally, an epiphany: I don’t think humans, on the whole, require animal flesh to survive.
    Even if it’s been killed by accident.

    • Mountain says:

      “less meat is less money, no matter how you look at it”

      Unless, of course, you find that meat by the side of the road (roadkill) or in a dumpster (freeganism). In which case, it’s free. Which is even cheaper than cheap.

      But, if you’re already a vegan, there’s a very good reason to avoid meat, even if it’s free and there’s no harm to animals caused by eating it. That reason is: habit.

      Habits structure your life so you don’t have to use your willpower constantly. An ex-smoker might avoid situations in which he would be tempted to smoke, even if the situations themselves are harmless. Likewise, a vegan might avoid animal products, even on those rare occasions when eating them wouldn’t harm animals or incentivize anyone to harm them.

      So, a vegan might look at people who eat roadkill or meat that’s going to be thrown away, and approve of them for their ethical (but non-vegan) consumption. But that doesn’t mean it would be wise to join them.

  3. Rhys Southan says:

    I like this idea, because it’s a vegan method of achieving some of the purported advantages of hunting, which include the preservation of more non-human animal habitat and a reduction in the amount of space devoted to agriculture. (So I think you pre-answered Humane Hominid’s question about why vegans would want to support this.)

    Foraging for animals might not achieve all of these advantages quite as well as hunting could, simply because animal foraging isn’t as reliable a way to get food as animal hunting. So in that respect it might not add much to the pro-preservation or re-wilding movement that vegetable foraging, bird watching and forest walking doesn’t already cover. But of course you’re balancing the animal food incentive with other ethical considerations.

    On the other hand, animal foraging is more bystander friendly than hunting. If you’re walking through a forest where people forage for animals rather than hunt, you don’t have to worry as much about accidentally being shot.

  4. My question wasn’t so much “why should I support this?” — as I said, I can’t think of any significant ethical objections — but more along the lines of, “why should I bother engaging in this at all, since it isn’t necessary?”

    Come to think of it, though, I think vegans would have a harder time convincing people to get all their meat from roadkill than they do convincing them to eschew animal products altogether.

    The future of food, technologically, seems to lie in vat-grown meat and increasingly-cheaper and more convincing vegan mock meats. And frankly, we should be focusing on overall animal-use reduction first, and leaving peripheral “what if?” things like this for after the revolution, so to speak.

    Good luck trying to convince more than a handful of Derek Jensen wannabes that going back to foraging is a good idea.

  5. Rhys Southan says:

    “And frankly, we should be focusing on overall animal-use reduction first, and leaving peripheral ‘what if?’ things like this for after the revolution, so to speak.”

    This is like the anti-vegan argument “We should be focusing on humans before we worry about animals.” Why not think about both? Don’t you want to clarify the ideology underlying a revolution (including its periphery) before the revolution rather than after?

    • Well, I only used “after the revolution” as a figure of speech. But what I’m getting at is that while this issue is certainly worth thinking about, it doesn’t strike me as particularly practical. Humans just are not going to go back to a Paleolithic existence, and shouldn’t. Our ecological record back then was little better than it is now, and only seems smaller because there were fewer of us.

      I think our most ecologically sustainable days lay ahead of us, not behind us. That’s why I mentioned lab meat and mock meat. While I’m not particularly a fan of either of them personally, those are the viable replacements for factory farmed meat most likely to “catch on”; that’s where all the venture capital is flowing these days, and it’s where the most “successes” (from the developer’s points of view) are being had.

  6. John Maher says:

    I see lots of assumptions here and in the previous post. Space and time do not permit me to point them all out.

    Rhys’ posit only makes sense if we are discussing vegan bubbas. The entire point of roadkill is that agency — and therefore most but not all ethical objection — is removed from the act of killing. Bubbas already hunt with trucks but none of them are vegan and this have no incentive to change their behavior.

    I will my own take on consequentialism (not my favorite topic) is my argument for not eating roadkill: if we assume a social utility in not eating meat because animal ag causes both suffering and pollution, then because eating any meat including roadkill — produces an epigenetic response in the humane gut biome which favors bacteria and enzyme level optimization for meat eating and procreating meat eaters — then eating roadkill is wrong because the changes which result on a genomic and sub genomic level cause humans to crave flesh and incentivize humans to produce more meat and therefore greater suffering and pollution through a social order where reproduction favors producing more meat eaters.

    Human hominid’s (an oxymoron) lab meat comment, well don’t get me started. Liked the HH’s Derek Jensen comment though and note Jensen eats meat that is not foraged and Lierre Keith outright advocates carnism. Jensen at least is concerned with species survival and confronting his somewhat ecofascist deconstruction of vegans is something to which vegans should respond and will be better for the analysis involved. If there is a Hegelian dialectic to be had, we will be the better for it.

    I am a bit concerned about the lack of anything but standard tropes grounded in analytic philosophy here and may have something to say about that later.

  7. Benny Malone says:

    A thought I had today is if a person accepts roadkill as ethically ‘neutral’ then does this commit them to adopting a similar position on the accidental/unintentional deaths through harvest argument and vice versa? The issue of consumption of the animal that dies being the variable. For consistency arguing that one is acceptable to consume would seem to make the other ethically neutral also. I think there are other issues such as practicality and feasibility. I don’t think the argument from it enforcing an idea of consumption of animal products as ethical was mentioned, where it enforces a paradigm. I agree with Humane Hominid that it is an issue on the periphery and like arguments from grey areas does not affect areas where shades of grey approach black and white and things are clearly morally objectionable.

    • Mountain says:

      “if a person accepts roadkill as ethically ‘neutral’ then does this commit them to adopting a similar position on the accidental/unintentional deaths through harvest argument and vice versa?”

      Nope. Eating crops incentivizes farmers to till, spray pesticides, and harvest– all of which kill field animals in the process. Eating roadkill doesn’t incentivize anyone to kill more animals. Unless you were paying for roadkill, in which case, you might create an incentive for someone to go out and run over more animals. But even then, probably not.

      Interestingly, if someone buys meat, but throws it away instead of consuming it, they’ve still caused animals to be harmed. The meat conglomerate just knows that the meat was sold; they don’t care what happened to it after that. On the flip side, someone who goes dumpster diving, retrieves the meat & eats it, doesn’t cause any harm to animals.

      • Benny Malone says:

        Thanks for the analysis Mountain, yes thinking further a closer analogy that is like-for-like would have to be ‘discovered’ food that the vegan foraged or happened upon like in James’ original example.

  8. Steve M. says:

    Is it ethical to compete for food with the indigenous scavengers when humans have done so much to decimate their traditional food sources? I’ll take a pass.

  9. Al says:

    For what it’s worth, here’s sociologist Roger Yates’ perspective on this issue, in response to a very similar (alas, now-deleted) blog post.

    • Yes, I remember Tim Gier writing about roadkill. He had the audacity to do exactly what James is doing now, challenging assumptions and/or playing around with long-held vegan notions, and he got a lot of flack for doing so. A real pity, because while I certainly didn’t agree with some (or even a lot) of what he said, it was interesting to read, and no vegan should be so certain (or scared) that they can’t handle questioning of sacred beliefs.

  10. Maire says:

    Does it matter what the caused the death of the animal ?!

    • James says:

      Do you not think there’s a qualitative difference between a slaughterhouse death and a natural death?

  11. Scott says:

    Another experiment showed that, of the vehicles that went out of their way to run over small plastic animals, 89% were SUVs and only 11% were cars. That’s highly lopsided. Watch the action here:


  12. Marc says:

    If we apply the same standards to all sentient beings, then eating humans who have died a natural death should also be an option.

  13. Marceline says:

    Il we appropriate the body of animals that have died natural deaths, the animals who might have fed upon their corpses would have to kill other animals.
    So, others animals will be killed simply because we took the body of animals to consume a meat that we don’t need to survive.

    • Ellen K says:

      Except that few if any carrion scavengers kill what they eat (hyenas a rare exception?); they’re foragers not predators

      • Marceline says:

        Most predators will eat already dead animals if given the opportunity.

      • Marceline says:

        Sorry, I was not very clear. If being a vegan means trying to cause the least harm possible to other animals (and not simply to refrain from eating meat and other animal products), a vegan shoud try to reduce her impact on wild animals, rather than make survival more difficult for them.

        Since surviving in the wild is not an easy task, the body of a dead animal is very precious for strict scavengers and/or predators-scavengers. I think It would be problematic to call oneself vegan while eating a meat stolen from animals who really need it, a meat that could have satisfied the hunger of a predator-scavenger who, as a result, will have to kill an animal. It’s more problematic than the mere fact of ingesting the flesh of an already dead animal.

        But what I also find disturbing is this : The sight of a dead animal on the roadside is very upsetting. The animal may have suffered, as all animals don’t die instantly when hit by a car. Maybe this is a mother whose children are still unweaned. Is it really possible for a vegan to see in this sad event an opportunity to eat an “ethic meat” ?

        It may be less wrong, for a carnist, to consume the corpse of a rabbit hit by a road than to buy a rabbit at the butcher shop. But should we, as vegans, promote scavenging for meat eaters ? As MCT pointed out, it would perpetuate the idea that animals are food and not individuals – persons – with intrinsic value. Individuals that deserve our best efforts to preserve their life, not our efforts to promote their consumption.

        Everyday n the US, one million animals are killed, hit by a car.

        (Excuse my broken english)

        • Ellen K says:

          Hi Marceline,
          No need to apologize for your excellent English.
          As I was the one to start this discussion in yesterday’s post (raising the question of depriving vulture and beetles of a necessary meal), I do get what you’re writing.
          And living where I do (near national park and wildlife refuge) I see dead animals on the side of the road, and remains of partially eaten animals around my home, all the time. I assure you I feel nothing but sadness, and — if the bodies are right near our home and need to be moved — place them carefully under a bush.

          There’s a fine distinction going on in both James’s post, and in many of the replies here: I don’t see anyone here PROMOTING eating animals who have died of natural causes. Instead, we’re acknowledging in heavily qualified language that from a strictly ethical standpoint, it’s possible that such behavior may be permissible, as a reluctant concession.
          I can’t speak for James with certainty, but I think I detect a bit of jest in his list of apparent promotions, hence my perhaps too oblique reference to a classic of 18th century English satire in my initial reply.

          And even in the replies here which say it may be ok, again from a strictly intellectual point of view, everyone is condemning it on other grounds. Treating the bodies with reverence and not as food, as we would those of humans and companion animals, certainly counts as valid — but that rationale lies in the realm of the personal,relational, emotional, spiritual, etc, and not the narrowly intellectual as the post’s question asked.
          Does this help?

          • Mountain says:

            It’s a modest proposal James is making; a modest proposal.

          • Marceline says:

            Hi Ellen and Mountain,

            I was not suggesting that it was not a good thing to make this proposal and to examine it.I was just saying why I thought it would be problematic for a vegan to scavenge for dead animals ; above all because it could harm other wild animals. This harm was not taken into account in James’ hypothesis.

  14. Ellen K says:

    “I’m starting to wonder: can one be a vegan and a forager of dead animal flesh?”
    Ethically, probably yes as as the central point of veganism is excluding exploitation and cruelty. But don’t fire up the bbq yet: from a sheer practical perspective, you’ll be having a foraged mushroom, sorrel and purslane dinner, not raccoon burgers. In the last decade of being in the woods and/or on a river in nearby wildlife refuge almost daily, I’ve only once run across a freshly dead animal. I mostly see floating and richly fragrant fish, which I’m happy to relinquish to eagerly feasting gulls.

    So foraging would accomplish zero in the goal of “taking pressure off plant-based agriculture” etc though I’m pretty sure I detect a modest Swiftian tone to that last paragraph ?

    Not to mention the point others raise: why? It’s not as though mere abstract principle restrains us from eating what we otherwise crave. Sure, it’s slightly less polluted meat (at least from intentionally administered drugs) but still, this isn’t health food (sorry, Mtn, I do subscribe to the 10%-safe-upper-limit concept, even for organic and wild-caught) nor is it aesthetically appealing to say the least.

    James, you seek an airtight and objective (whatever that means; one can argue even math and hard science are subjective) defense of veganism. As I’ve written before, such a pure rational argument with bright lines and no grey areas or exceptions may not exist. To my mind, that’s ok, and doesn’t diminish veganism’s clear force in the 99% of cases where animal suffering is not in dispute.
    Indeed, acknowledging grey areas and uncertainties (moral agency of bugs, e.g.), allowance of rare exceptions in truly extreme circumstances, etc may contribute to veganism’s broader appeal. I’ll say it again: agnosticism is often the most intellectually honest and strong position, and fundamentalism of any stripe is rightfully off-putting, so no need to try to build an unassailable case.

    And I wouldn’t want this or related vanishingly rare or improbable scenarios to become a distraction or, worse, an excuse for throwing in the towel altogether. Just because eating strips of frozen human thigh is acceptable in the aftermath of an Andean plane crash doesn’t make it so otherwise. And because it might be ethically defensible to be vegan and still eat a found squirrel’s corpse doesn’t entail an inevitable slippery slope to Burger King and Dairy Queen.

    • James says:

      Of course, I recognize your concerns. But maybe there’s a more optimistic way of looking at my promotion of dead animal foraging. By proposing it as an ethically viable method of eating animals, you defuse what many see as the inherent extremism of veganism. The precept that all animal consumption is ipso facto wrong is, for many thoughtful consumers, an alienating message. When I begin my talk against all animal agriculture by noting that “eating animals, in some circumstances. may be ethically justifiable,” I can almost feel the weight in the room lift. People become more receptive. As for “why bother”–well, if the idea alleviates veganism’s extremist associations (unfair as they may be), I see no harm. And as for the viability of it, just take a look at how quickly foraging for plants has taken off as a trend. There are restaurants in ATX that list the forager on the menu!

      • John Maher says:

        Best and most succinct summation on this discussion.

        Listing the “forager”? If by such one means the foragers in the wild that is relevant to this discussion and much f the same analysis holds. If one means human forager who gloms produce off the top at the Farmer’s Market, that goes less to this ethical discussion than the the relentless need of capitalism to reduce everything to a commodity and install tiered systems of allocation. In New York the foragers have all but ruined the farmer’s markets and the sense of destroying ‘the social’ in favor of sterile convenience. Might as well buy produce at the 7-11 if farmer markets are preempted by foragers.

      • Ellen K says:

        We’re on the same page! This optimistic view is the point of my second to last paragraph :) and even the final one, final sentence: perfection isn’t possible, but that’s not a deterrent from doing one’s very best

        I was more worried that you felt you DID need to build a no-exceptions case for veganism, and if you couldn’t, then the whole thing was on shaky ground

      • mct says:

        Promoting foraging for dead animals assuages those looking for yet another “legitimate” way in which to commodify other animals and it encourages yet another culinary niche. It helps maintain the status quo and perpetuates the notion that other animals are gastronomic pleasures and whose lives are not to be taken seriously. It does not get us any closer to a paradigm shift in how we view other animals, so I fail to see how it could possibly be consistent with a vegan ethic.

    • anim says:

      Thanks for bringing up cannibalism! I always link these kinds of discussions back to human scenarios in order to put the anti-vegan position on the defensive. Since human moral supremacy is a biased personal opinion and not a fact, there is no reason not to consider human remains for consumption as well. We know human societies have consumed human remains in the past, some even considered eating dead relatives an honor.
      If we are going to entertain the idea of consuming road kill as an ethically sound policy–then it should also apply to human remains. What a waste of meat!

      I know there are claims it is unhealthy but the same is said about all meat consumption….

  15. Pauline says:

    Agree with Ellen (well said).

    Living where I do, on the outskirts of London, and only occasionally making it to the countryside, I’m straining to think if I’ve *ever* in my entire life seen a random dead animal – lying by the roadside or anywhere else (excluding the very, very occasional dead bird or mouse found in or near my garden). So, this argument (like the dessert island one, in which there is supposedly nothing available to eat other than animals) is entirely academic for me. In fact, I have occasionally wondered why we never see any animals who have died of old age anywhere around. Maybe they simply get quickly eaten.

    It could be that those living in the States, with vaster tracts of land still teeming with wildlife, have more experience of encountering dead animals whilst out and about, I don’t know.

    Apart from this, as I said after the previous post, if I ever did see one, I cannot imagine having any desire to skin it and eat it, so examining the ethics of it is again academic. The thought of consuming flesh is about as unappetising as it comes, especially as we have no need to consume it. If I were starving, maybe I might think about it.

  16. Pauline says:

    Ooops… that should have been “desert island” – one “s”.

  17. But think of the scaling here. Assuming the trend catches on worldwide, does anyone here really think that billions of humans traipsing through the wilderness scrounging up hard-to-find carcasses is going to have less of a detrimental impact on the ecology than what we do now?

    I sure as heck don’t. Paleolithic hunting and foraging is correlated in the fossil record over 50,000 years with species extinctions and disruptions of the food web. Going back to that and scaling it up by orders of magnitude will be devastating to scavengers and detritivores worldwide.

    A sustainable food system is only to be found, if at all, through the technologies of the future, not the past.

    • James says:

      I’m presenting the idea as more of a strategic salve, rather than realistically achievable goal. The idea being that veganism might be more appealing if it’s not theoretically opposed to all animal consumption. I realize that this would mean a possible name change–vegan being defined around not eating animals–but that’s another issue.

      As for your take on technology, I’m with you 100 percent.
      The less we grow food through conventional agricultural methods, the better off we’ll be. In fact, I see foraging as a nice complement to high tech ag.

  18. Diane says:

    I think it would be better to ask if one can be ethical and a forager of dead animal flesh. If you eat animal flesh, I don’t see how you can call yourself a vegan. This raises the question, however, of what is gained by calling yourself a vegan. The term can be a convenient way to explain what you don’t eat (though even then, it’s controversial, as the vegan police are always there to accuse those who don’t meet their standards – and of course there’s the issue of whether you can call yourself vegan if only your diet is vegan or even, as some people do, if you eat small amounts of animal products or honey). It can also be a way to make a statement against the way animals are treated in our culture. And it can be a way to announce your supposed moral superiority (see Vegan Smythe’s song “Way More Vegan Than You” on youtube). We tend to get very hung up on the words we use to describe ourselves – but categories are really conveniences. Personally, I think if it’s important to you to call yourself a vegan, you should abstain from all animal products. If you are simply trying to eat in an ethical way, then I don’t see what’s wrong with eating animals that have died of natural causes. From a health perspective, it sounds like a bad idea, though diseased animals are eaten by omnivores who assume that their food is safe.

    • Marc says:

      Thanks, Diane, for the link to Vegan Smythe. He captures perfectly why I have never described myself as vegan. I follow a plant-based diet for the sake of other animals, not for my own personal benefit.

  19. Mountain says:

    I think the best reason for vegans to avoid eating foraged animals is that omnivores should eat them instead. We know that the average vegan’s diet kills 2-3 sentient beings per year, while the average omnivore’s diet kills more than 50. So, if an omnivore’s diet is roughly 20x deadlier, you save 20x as many animals by having omnivores eat foraged animals. Which is to say, you do more good by giving/feeding it to an omni than by eating it yourself.

  20. Karen Harris says:

    Not sure why this matters, in other words, what difference does it make? The whole issue around veganism is not to treat animals as commodities for our use. This has nothing to do with veganism.

  21. Laura says:

    Frankly, I’m only vegan to stop consuming animals from farms and slaughterhouses or otherwise deliberately killed by human beings. I appreciate the health benefits of plant-only diet but don’t believe anything is inherently unhealthy in eating a bit of lean animal protein or even eggs, etc., regularly but not in huge amounts. It’s cruel, yes, and thereby wrong, but not necessarily unhealthy. I believe the saturated fat does not belong in our arteries or systems, but with eating a lot of high fiber foods (fruits, veggies, grains, beans), we can offset some damage and not develop heart disease, etc., if animal consumption is kept to a minimum. (Although even a bit of cheese, especially combined with white flour, so popular a combo) sends my digestion into a tizzy of refusal and blockage, lol.)

    But it’s a matter of separating oneself from extreme, sadistic abuse done by human beings treating life as produce, the whole “livestock” concept which is particularly coldhearted and vile. So, lab meat I may try if it comes out and proves to not involve abuse of life, and “wild” unfertilized eggs or other “found” items I would eat in certain circumstances, but haven’t for 5 years now, and my good health keeps me ontrack. Besides, my enjoyment of healthy food has only increased since becoming vegan.

    Veganism to me is resolutely boycotting abuse and deliberate killing of the innocent and helpless, stopping my funding of it.

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