We in Kentucky may be behind in adopting casino gambling to help pay for needed government services, slow on the uptake when it comes to medical marijuana to treat our ills and behind the eight ball on recreational marijuana to fill our coffers.
But there’s one place where we lead the nation.
Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts, recently wrote that more and more states are allowing people to … ahem … “harvest” fresh roadkill as long as they report to the state the type of animal they claimed, where it was located, all that sort of thing.
Kentucky has allowed people to hunt for preslaughtered roadside delicacies for years. Tom Bennett, the former commissioner of Kentucky's Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said he doesn't know it's ever been outlawed here.
Call it what you want: flaccoon, scrabbit, road pizza — some people say if you're a critter connoisseur, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Franny Szetela, a line cook in New Orleans who used to live in Louisville, has been known to grab a deer, squirrels and other animals from the side of the road, butcher them and fill up her freezer.
"I was a teenager and I was always very political and it started out as just an act of reclamation. I was doing it as a way of not participating in commerce," said Szetela. "I started dumpster diving for food and that was kind of a gateway."
Szetela said the first time she scavenged was when she was 16 and claimed a squirrel she found on Oak Street.
"I stir fried it and ... it was full of bone fragments. I didn't know what I was doing. My mom was really mad," said Szetela, whose handle on Instagram is @twitchingroadkill.
After that, she was "kinda put-off" with roadkill for a while, but got over it. In the 14 years since, she's tried numerous other roadkill including bobcat, opossum, raccoon, coyote and fox.
"When I lived in a rural area, we would pick up a deer on a weekly basis. It was an unending bounty," she said.
"Hunters" in Idaho and Oregon are now experiencing the unending bounty. Those states have in the last years or so passed bills allowing people to salvage roadkill. California is considering such a bill now.
In some states, those salvaging roadkill must report what they collect. This helps the states track migration patterns, which the states use to predict where animals are going to be so they can place signs to help protect the animals and drivers.
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Sometimes a good roadkill deer is as prized as a top steak.
Rodney Brewer, former state police commissioner, said once while working an accident, he had to step between two men who almost came to blows over a deer one of the men had struck while driving in Oldham County.
Brewer said he didn’t know the law on it but figured that the guy who hit the deer probably had dibs on it.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, drivers in the United States have collisions with 1 million to 2 million deer, elk and other large animals each year. They base that on accident reports and dead carcasses.
The highway administration says that about 26,000 people are injured in such accidents each year and about 200 of them will die.
Between 2003 and 2010, Kentucky drivers reported to state police 2,985 collisions with large animals per year, which is almost assuredly a low number since the federal government says most people don’t report the collisions.
Szetela started looking for roadkill on city streets in Louisville, but now she looks for fender fodder in Louisiana.
"It's the freshest meat you're ever going to eat," she said.
There aren't too many animals one sees on the side of the road she wouldn't try — except for most birds and carrion-eaters.
And there aren't too many parts of a deer she won't try. Including deer testicles.
"Oh, yeah. It was disgusting. It was very bad. The taste was in my mouth for days," she said.
Harlan County Sheriff Leslie “Smitty” Smith said state police and sheriffs in rural Kentucky sometimes know people who will come to the scene of accidents to claim deer or other large animals like elk after traffic accidents.
“It’s a shame to see all that go to waste,” he said.
Bennett said many state conservation officers know people who will come and haul off a fresh deer or elk that's been involved in accidents.
And he's even tossed a deer in the trunk of his car — at the insistence of his old boss's wife.
"She was from Mississippi and I guess didn't like to see anything like that go to waste. ... I threw it in my car and gave it to a needy family that I knew would use it," Bennett said.
Randy King, a chef from Idaho and an expert in roadkill who has written about it in his book, “Chef in the Wild,” said he’s dined on roadkill quail, pheasants, goose, raccoon, whitetail deer, mule deer and rabbit.
“The first time I did, it was still not legal. It was a rooster pheasant,” said King, who had driven past where he found the quail a few hours earlier and didn’t see it the first time. “I did not have much hesitation, but I did hide it in the bed of my truck.”
He said he tried deer the first time after he called in an accident that killed a doe and a fawn. “The game warden asked if I wanted one. I figured since he asked I should give it a try. I do not regret it.”
Stories abound about roadkill winding up on dinner plates in Kentucky.
A decade or so ago, after working an accident in southern Kentucky, one state trooper allegedly stripped off his uniform shirt, grabbed a knife out of his prow car and field dressed the deer on the side of the road. The trooper agreed to talk about the incident but then didn’t call back.
In 2012, according to news accounts, a Chinese restaurant in Williamsburg was shut down temporarily by the health department after employees grabbed a deer from the side of the road, put it in a garbage can and dragged it through the dining room at lunchtime — its leg, hoof and tail sticking out — while others furiously worked to mop up the blood trail behind it.
The restaurant owner said he didn’t plan to serve Bambi to his customers but that it was for his family.
Jackie Gulbe, the former assistant director of Louisville Metro Animal Services, said her father, who was a German immigrant, salvaged roadkill frequently — but never to eat.
He'd scoop up animals from the side of the road and bury them at the base of trees to provide nourishment as they decomposed, and occasionally, he'd turn raccoons into clothing.
"He made one hat," she said. "And he thought keeping his lower back and his kidneys warm would keep him healthy so he lined a vest with raccoon fur. ... He didn't let anything go to waste."
Kevin Kelly, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, said you’re required to call the department to obtain a “carcass tag” before collecting deer, elk, turkey, bear, otters, sandhill cranes or bobcats. (Yes, people eat bobcat. The website Bobcat Barbacoa says it tastes like pork.)
But you don’t need a permit to collect other animals, like opossum, squirrel and coyote. (Yes, people eat coyote. It tastes like anything from venison to beef to dog, according to websites.)
And for heaven’s sake, don’t collect any federally protected animals like bald eagles or Indiana bats — even if they’re dead. They’ll arrest you for that. Even a single bald eagle feather will get you in dutch with the feds.
Kelly said that without a carcass tag, professional meat processors won’t touch your find. He wasn't able to ascertain how many carcass tags were given out last year.
Often, with roadkill, the meat is so badly damaged that it can’t be eaten, however.
Whether or not a carcass is even edible depends on how fast the car was traveling, the temperature outside and how long after the accident it was found.
Smith and Brewer said many of the animals they have seen killed in car wrecks are too damaged to eat because of bruising and internal organ damage that can taint meat.
King has a series of tips for emergency lane epicurists. Don't eat anything that has cloudy or gray eyes, or a distended belly. And if the meet smells sulfuric, leave it be.
And don't invite me over for dinner.