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Is roadside foraging the most ethical way to eat meat?

By Mark HayApril 18, 2016

Deer on the road
Deer on the road Susanne Nillson/Flickr

Every year, American drivers strike and kill over one million deer. Just deer. Combined with small animals like birds and lizards, and we’re probably killing tens if not hundreds of millions of animals annually—and leaving them to rot in the roads. Many see this as a tragedy. But some also see it as a waste, arguing that up to 75 percent of the meat in a roadkill incident is safe to consume, posing no greater risk of sickness, parasitism, or death than, say, hunted animal meat. In recognition of this accidental bounty, a growing subculture has developed in America and abroad, centered around the careful selection, preparation, and consumption of roadkill meat. 

This subculture has no common name—you can call them roadside foragers or accidental meat eaters or roadkill hunters. And they all pursue their scavenged quarry for different reasons, from cost-effective opportunism to ecological idealism. (It’s worth noting that even some animal rights and vegan groups support roadkill scavenging as a source of ethical meat.) Some are outlaws, while others are part of established and legal local traditions. But all have gained increasing recognition over the past decade or so as a growing number of books on roadkill cuisine and TV programs on alternative or ecologically sound culinary lifestyles have come out. 

Yet despite our growing awareness of roadkill cuisine, for many it’s just hard to fathom how people fall into such a way of life. Below, Fergus Drennan (a.k.a. Fergus the Forager) shares how and why he came to embrace roadkill cuisine and his thoughts on the subculture’s future. 

[When I was 22,] I used to cycle 30 miles every day before breakfast. I carried on doing this for six months after [becoming] vegetarian and I was utterly exhausted. Then one day… I parked my bike by a hedge and hopped over this barbed wire fence to go to the toilet and I saw a pheasant. It had a broken wing, it had a broken leg, and there was blood coming from its mouth, but it was still alive. I thought: This thing is about to die. Why let it suffer? Why not wring its neck? So I did. I was just about to walk off and I thought: I just put it out of its misery. I haven’t been involved in its suffering. I probably saved it some suffering. Why don’t I just eat it? So I did, and the next day… it was like everything had changed in terms of my energy level. 

I’d seen pheasants on the road all the time but it hadn’t entered my mind that they were viable options. But after I’d eaten this pheasant, it was like… this is a wise thing to do

I don’t think I met anyone else who [did this] for like 15 years. It’s not something I really talked about [much]. A whole load of us have gotten to know each other through the years through what we do — and not just eating roadkill. A lot of these people, they’re drawn from backgrounds where they’re looking for how to live more creatively, more sustainably with the natural world. 

You get this cliché that people who eat road kill are scraping things off the road. For most people who eat roadkill, nothing could be further from the truth. They’re really discriminating. The quality of some of the meat is actually much better than what you could buy in a [store]. Generally amongst my friends, it’s been very easy to overcome any initial reluctance [or bias that roadkill meat must taste worse than store bought meant]. If you start with things that people might have had anyway like rabbit or pheasant or venison, it’s very easy to win them over. 

For some people, it’s not so much eating the meat that’s the challenge. It’s actually processing the carcass. [To address that, I recommend that people try to] establish some kind of ritual where you find the animal, you honor the animal. I like to… send its spirit on its way. 

I don’t see so much roadkill now [as I used to]. That [either] means that there aren’t healthy populations of [animals] or [that] a lot of people are picking things up or a combination of those [factors] or something else. I think the more high-profile people talk about it [as they have been over the past five years or so] it gives people another valid or legitimate option for behavior. It’s no longer taboo. All these other people are doing this. They seem quite sane and look quite healthy. Maybe this is an option for me.