Roadkill: It's Not Just an Adventure, It's a Job
A typical day for Wendy Lee Allen might include, oh, say, hacking off the head of a farm pig with the serrated edges of her hunting knife. Afterward she'll fling the skull atop a mound of red ants, that, having found a meaty food source, will ring the dinner bell and alert the rest of the colony. Picked clean after a couple of weeks, the pig's skull will be ready for whitening via a bucket of Clorox.
Wendy's macabre clutch of craniums extends beyond the rural pig's. Once stripped of their fleshy veneers by ants, the dog, possum, gator, and goat heads also get bleached and shelved for reference. A raccoon's penis bone served as focus for a recent on-the-job game of Name That Appendage. Both Wendy and another worker recognized the mammal's calcified schlong, but the payoff -- cash or a six-pack -- went to Wendy. "[My boss] gave me the prize because he said I was the cocky one in the group," she says.
Who are these guys anyway? Local paleontologists waylaid by too much rum and sun? Bone-rattling rave-ghouls left over from Halloween? Nah. They're the people responsible for scooping up the flattened fauna that garlands Broward County's roadways. The wacky folks at Critter Control are more commonly known for their expert intervention between pesky wildlife and suburbia, but roadkill patrol is also part of the job, and so its proceeds make their rancid way back to the office.
"The bones remind me of what I'm here for, the preservation of these animals and to eventually stop all this roadkill," she says, and singles out too much development and too many people feeding strays as possible causes for the suburban slaughter.
Wendy ventures out to a truck that's surprisingly girlish, considering that by the end of her shift, the back'll be piled high with the corpses of animals struck down by Broward's burgeoning traffic. Strapped around the stick shift is a collection of purple and pink scrunchies; smushed between the dash and windshield are ladybug and baby deer beanie babies, two of a slew given to her by her boyfriend, whose picture she's tucked behind the pickup's steering wheel.
When it comes to the roadkill (or "DOAs," as Critter Control staffers call them) she's all business. A clipboard lists the day's pickups and their whereabouts: possum, cat, raccoon, or the always intriguing "unknown," which is usually something that's been run over about 50 times or been flat-baked on the pavement like a pancake. Wendy also has a radio hookup to the office, and she often uses it to ask the dispatcher for more refined directions. "The fun part is trying to find them when you can't find them," she notes.
Presently she's trying to locate the day's first pickup. Realizing she's heading in the wrong direction, Wendy U-turns the truck. While driving she reminisces about other DOAs, her conversation often punctuated by a mantra-like chanting of the names of passing streets. "One day I had to stop and rush to go get this dog that was blocking traffic -- let me get my bearings here, Pembroke to Federal, go north to Plunkett; did I pass it already? -- when I get there, it's a turtle! I think what happened is that when they hit it, it started spinning on its plastron, which is the bottom shell, and what was flying out of it made the thing appear bigger than it probably was -- 1716, 1718, 1720. There it is!" she exclaims, having spotted an adolescent possum curled up as if asleep on a grassy median.
She snaps on her latex gloves and jumps out of the truck's cab, her ponytail swinging behind her. She snatches a white Hefty bag from the pickup's bed, and before bagging the possum, checks its pouch to make sure that there aren't surviving babies. If there are, and they're old enough to be rehabilitated, she'll rush them to a wildlife care center. Today it's only the one possum that's bought the farm. Wendy climbs back into the cab, sheds her gloves, and grabs the radio. "Seventeenth and Plunkett; possum's done." She waits for a reply.
Static crashes over the speaker, and dispatch informs her of some extra DOAs. "You're making up for yesterday, aren't you?" Wendy asks, referring to the previous day's lack of roadkill. Usually staffers will pick up anywhere from 15 to 20 dead animals a day; by the end of the week, the freezers back at home base are stuffed with about 1000 pounds of carcasses.
Wendy doesn't like to think too much about that. She prefers to be positive. Sometimes, when she has a particularly gooey job to scrape up, she likes to sing the Sesame Street song: "Sunnnnny day, Eeeeeverything's A-OK ."
Stop two: Pembroke Pines. Wendy scrunches her nose and peers through her mirrored sunglasses at the DOA list. "Oh, this is a cat in a towel. Those are always kind of weird when somebody's wrapped it up for you, like mystery meat," she says.
En route Wendy sights a half-smashed bird in the middle of a four-way stop. She can't help but notice it; spotting dead animals has become habit, although Critter Control doesn't have to collect DOAs that have not been reported. She pulls the truck over, hops out, and peels a gut-glued blackbird off the road with her one gloved hand. "Awwwwwww, poor little dude," she laments, before swinging another garbage bag onto the back of her truck.
After numerous U-turns, several backtrackings, and some coaching from dispatch, Wendy finally finds the orange tabby. Someone's placed it on a shaded patch of lawn beside a house. The cat's shrouded in a clean white towel embossed with seashells. "This is probably a case where somebody hit it and felt bad and stopped to pick it up, which is very cool," she says. She bends over, grabs the cat by one hind leg, and starts to lift it into the bag.
A Jamboree camper glides toward the curb and parks. A man leaps out of the driver's side and trots towards her. An animal activist? Perhaps the grief-stricken owner? More like a German tourist asking for directions to a nearby campground. The ever-friendly Wendy chats for a while about better campsites. At her feet a few bottle-green flies begin to drone on the cat's exposed leg; the Hefty rustles like a thin sheet of foil in the afternoon wind. The tourist notices nothing, smiles, and thanks her.
Stops three, four, five, and six: cat, cat, baby raccoon, big-ass raccoon. Wendy's worst fear is that when she's picking up a middle-of-the-road kill, some high-speed motorist will whiz by and clip her as well. Today cat one is on a car-free street by the Broadwalk and cat two is on a quiet side road off A1A. The baby raccoon's heaped at an intersection, but no one's around. Wendy bags them all quickly, then stops to repack the bodies into a giant green Hefty.
"I try to conserve my body bags. The cadaver conservationist. The bags will be flapping in the wind and people are like, 'Hey, you know you're losing something?' I'm like, 'Don't worry. Don't even look!'" she says laughing. She likes to laugh as often as possible and believes that a sense of humor is key in her line of work. Good thing she has one, too, because by the time she gets to the giant raccoon, the high-noon sun's beginning to bake her bagged goodies. The strange thing about roadkill is that no matter what the species, the smell remains the same: a penetrating hybrid of garbage and spoiled meat.
She picks up the raccoon by one bloated leg and points out how juicy its underbelly is. The animal's mouth is open, perhaps shocked to witness the grille of a speeding Buick as its last sight. Wendy tries to shove the critter in the bag, but it's too big, her grip slips, and the raccoon falls to her feet with a solid thud -- but not without spraying her forearm with whatever's dripping from its stomach.
"Eeeeeeewwwwwww!!! Ewwwwwww!!! I got it on me," she shrieks, momentarily forgetting the splayed-leg animal. It's the only time during patrol that she's lost her composure. She runs to the back of her truck, but she's out of Handi Wipes. She has antibacterial soap, though, and squirts it generously over her arm. "I hate that part," she says, laughing nervously. "I'll be stinking all day now. When I get that friggin' juice on my hands, I can't get the smell off."
Stops 7 and 8 -- possum and decapitated squirrel in West Hollywood.Wendy treads slowly around the lot. She pokes behind a garbage can. She crunches dead branches and old leaves underfoot. Nothing.
"Sometimes, if I can't find it, I look for the flies," she confides. If she can't locate the animal, she or someone else will return the next day. According to its contract with Broward County, Critter Control has 24 hours to locate the dead. She pokes around some more and finally finds the possum beside a chainlink fence. No squirrel. Turns out he's lying on someone's front lawn a few blocks away, not headless but with the front part of his muzzle chewed down to a red gore. Wendy decides to use the bag as a glove and skips the latex.
By three o'clock the smell emanating from the truck is unspeakable. But the DOAs are done. Body count for the day: 9. By the end of the week it could be 100. Today's last pickup is an easy one; the raccoon's stiff limbs make the grasping easy. A hundred flies crawl in and out of its mouth. Wendy remains unfazed. She murmurs words of comfort to the last of her workday's harvest.
Contact Emma Trelles at her e-mail address:
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