The most dangerous predators in these parts have four tires and an engine. Cars and trucks mow down more critters than the bears and cougars that live out among the trees. We humans operating them rarely even know what we have done.
On our long walks through the coastal forest, my dog Annie and I see the victims lying on the pavement: snakes, squirrels, birds, frogs, newts. If they’re dead but not smashed, I wrap my hand in an unused poop bag and move them into the grass at the side of the road so that their bodies can deteriorate naturally—or be eaten by hungry animals as part of the food chain—rather than being smashed by cars.
We all see dead animals out on the highway, where cars swoosh by too quickly for anyone to rescue their corpses. Only the crows dare to nibble at them, flying out of the way at the last second. The dead animals get roller-pinned by our tires until there’s nothing left but a few tufts of fur, then a discolored spot on the road that eventually gets worn away. I always feel bad. And helpless. At least I can do something to help these small creatures on our country roads.
Annie sniffs and backs away, but I often stop to study these victims up close, to admire their colors and shapes, to feel how light or heavy they are. I moved an Anna’s hummingbird last week that seemed to weigh nothing. A dead squirrel on the same walk was surprisingly solid.
I used to be squeamish about touching them, but all these years in the woods have made me more courageous.
If they’re injured but still alive, I struggle to decide whether or not to move them. Yesterday, we came upon a garter snake. Alive or dead? I stroked its red-striped skin. Dry and warm. I could see blood dripping from two places in its middle. But its tail flicked threateningly. I backed off, then berated myself for my cowardice all the way to the end of our walk and back. Garter snakes are harmless. I hoped that somehow the snake would be gone. It wasn’t. Only one car had come by, a silver Prius, but now the snake was truly dead, its head smashed, already merging into the blacktop, too late to rescue.
All it wanted was a little sun. Just like me.
When I see animals on the road that have not been hit yet, I urge them to get out of the street. I will nudge the garter snake to make it swirl out of danger, clap my hands at the squirrel to scare it up a tree, cheer on the newt crossing the street. “Hurry! Come on!” Traffic is intermittent out here, but I’m all too aware that while I’m trying to save tiny critters, I could get run down by a 4 x 4 and become roadkill, too.
I hit a raccoon once, right in the middle of Newport. It banged hard against the bumper of my Honda. It was Christmas Eve, and I was on my way to Mass. I parked the car and went looking for my victim, hoping it might have survived. Perhaps it did. It wasn’t there. I’ll never know if it went off to die or I just missed finding the body in the dark, where any second a car could run into me. I felt bad as I went on to sing with the choir.
I have hit birds, too, and of course I kill countless bugs that smash and drip down my windshield. They’re living their lives and our cars come roaring through, heedless of the rights of all the living beings crossing their paths.
Bigger animals pose a danger to us and our cars. If we hit elk, deer, and bears running across the road, it’s like running into a mountainside. But the animals usually die while we call the insurance company to fix our cars.
As children, we humans are taught to “look both ways.” If we dash into the street, our terrified parents yell and spank us, telling us to “never ever do that again.” Animals don’t get these lessons.
Even Annie doesn’t understand. She’ll drag me into the middle of the street to sniff a tantalizing smell, which could be grease, urine, food, or the last traces of a dead animal. Hearing a car or truck coming, I drag her to the side of the road. She looks at me like, “What?”
Yes, it’s dangerous out there. Especially if you’re a garter snake. And I know I sound like a hippie kid from suburbia. Too bad.
Annie is doing well with her recovery from knee surgery. She still limps sometimes, and we walk shorter distances much more slowly than usual. It gives us time to smell the wild roses, watch the bumblebees, and notice that the blackberries are coming.
Photo Copyright: leekris / 123RF Stock Photo