Roadkill

The telephone rang just as we were sitting down to lunch. “Oh good, you’re there. Found a deer in the ditch. I’ll be there soon.” Twenty minutes later and I was poking my finger into a buck’s eyeball in the back of a pickup truck.

Disclaimer:

The Mismeasure of Man is an excellent book by Stephen Jay Gould detailing the history of the science of biological determinism and where it goes wrong. It is a sizeable text and yet you can get through it all in what seems like one endless night if you fear straying too far from the toilet due to a Campylobacter infection.

This experience of mine did not come from food poisoning and, even without the aid of the antibiotics I was offered, I was absolutely fine in a couple of days. What I want to emphasize is that even when you aren’t in real danger, these sorts of infections are deeply unpleasant. From there it only gets worse and messing up on food safety can get you deadeven in the modern world with modern drugs. It should also be added here that I am not a butcher. I’ve never had any training on food safety, though I did have to take a little bit of microbiology for my undergrad. What follows is my take, which has worked out well so far in my admittedly quite limited experience. Whether or not you play along at home is your decision.

Why Roadkill?

  • Financial: Free meat. Whether you’re flaunting the law in a jurisdiction in which taking roadkill is verboten or going through the appropriate channels and being issued a tag, I don’t know of any jurisdiction where you will be charged for that tag. Meaning the cost of any meat you can recover boils down to your time and any materials or energy you use for storing it.
  • Ethics: “Waste not, want not.” Your life costs life. If you are buying your “organic” produce at the local farmer’s market then the ethical calculus still apportions you your responsibility for the clearing of land for the market, the farm and all the roads in-between, the use of pesticides (yes, “organic” farms use pesticides), use and pollution of water and all of the fossil fuels involved in production and transport. If you garden and hunt your own food then the costs associated with those practices is more evident and can be worked out if you so desire. Roadkill, on the other hand, represents damage already done. Getting it away from the road keeps scavengers from dying and there will still be plenty left over for the scavengers, micro and macroscopic, when you have taken your cut. The more meat you get the less other food you need and the less harm you therefore do.
  • Tacticool Pumpkin

    .. and when I say “tacticool pumpkin” …

  • Surprise: I enjoy hunting, despite, or perhaps because, it involves uncertainty and stress and is sometimes pretty damn cold. It may seem strange to say this of an activity so full of unusual and unexpected events, but hunting doesn’t bring with it the element of surprise in quite the same way at these occasional road kills. This year I had no idea I would be getting my deer on the Thursday of the controlled deer hunt until I saw its head pop up above the foliage as I was slow stalking through a small chunk of bush. That being said, I was in the woods dressed like a tacticool pumpkin and carrying a gun, so really what did I expect? The particulars of the day were a pleasant surprise but that I killed a deer while hunting deer wasn’t actually unexpected.

    By contrast, that one phone call turned an afternoon of coding AngularJS directives into an afternoon of butchering in an instant. It also completely upended my meat math for the year. It has now been a couple years that my wife and I have been walking straight past the meat section of the grocery store. When your freezer is full of your own chicken, venison, rabbit, squirrel, beaver, racoon or whatever else you’ve gotten your hands on then the little trays of homogenous light pink[1] don’t appeal anymore. Living that way, there is something disappointing about using your last of anything. This is particularly true of venison, which is one of the best and most versatile meats at my disposal. The annual hunt has produced fairly consistent results and I can stretch the spoils the full year if I don’t get carried away but the bonus of a roadkill deer means we might be comfortably in venison for the foreseeable future.

Sherlock Holmes With A Knife

When you put a bullet through a squirrel’s head and watch it hit the ground you know how that animal was killed. Roadkill, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery. As soon as you start in on it you need to be collecting clues and trying to piece together what happened. If after some inspection the cause of death is still a mystery then you need to get really worried and might consider leaving the carcass entirely. An animal that just keels over with no visible wounds is not one you want to be messing with – even if you do happen to find it near a roadway. There is the chance that it was poisoned or had a serious illness, both of which might cause issues for you should you chose to consume that meat.

On the other hand, the deer in the back of the truck this time was a bit of a mess. Even from the outside, it was clear it had sustained a heavy blow on one side towards the rear. There was also a clear break on the front leg on the same side. My friend who had found it said it was lying in the snow, injured side down, just off the road. There were no tracks leading to it. Odds are it was hit by a plow or possibly another heavy vehicle and flung off the road. That it was lying injured side down was helpful, as it meant that any internal bleeding on the injured side was liable to stay pooled on that side rather than seeping into other areas of the carcass. It also meant that the injuries were pressed closest to the cold snow which would have slowed down bacterial development as well as the flow of blood through the torn-up areas.

The body was in very light rigor, meaning either that the kill was relatively recent and the body had yet to lock up or that the kill was quite a while ago and the body had already gone through rigor and was now coming out. The skin was still moving freely over top of the muscles and was intact, which is also a good sign. And then there were the eyes. They were cloudy but not overly so. They weren’t puckered or weeping. Odds are, this deer had been killed that morning and, given the low temperatures and its orientation in the snow, that was promising. This suspicion was borne out later when the deer was opened and still had enough heat to produce steam from the abdominal cavity.

Gutting

Speaking of gutting, after an external inspection the next stage was to hang and gut the deer. Ideally you want the meat to drop in temperature as quickly as possible and the large abdominal cavity holds a lot of heat. If organs have been damaged, there is also potential for that abdominal cavity to become an absolute mess of bacteria. Getting that cavity empty was a priority.

Given the location of the wound and the general desire to keep any blood, feces, urine or other bodily fluids away from the meat, I opted to hang it head up. I then put on gloves. I often don’t wear gloves when butchering but given the potential for bacterial soup inside the carcass, I figured this was one of those times when gloves were warranted. The skin was then slit along the sternum and then down through the belly. At this point I think I may have over-penetrated with my large knife and accidentally slit an intestine. Whether this was the case or it was a sign of pre-existing damage, the first thing to spill forth from the belly was a pile of shit. Not nicely pelleted shit from the lowest intestines but loose, runny shit from the upper digestive tract.

Also evident was a large amount of clotted blood along the inside wall of the abdominal cavity on the damaged side. There had obviously been some internal bleeding inside the cavity. Knowing that the entire contents of the abdominal cavity were now suspect, I cut the entirety of the guts out just below the diaphragm and let it hit the snow. I enjoy deer liver and was sad to see this deer’s liver go but I deemed the risk too great. Thankfully, I am the only one in my hunting party to take advantage of the “fifth quarter” so I already had some venison liver pate in the fridge and four more pounds of liver portioned out for future use.

The Point of Departure

Now up to this point, anyone who has field gutted an animal will be retreading well-known terrain. It is at this point, however, that the procedure starts to diverge from standard carcass handling and the procedure starts to need to be tailored even more carefully to the particulars of the body in front of you.

Butchering Roadkill Deer

Rather than skinning all at once, the skin is used as an apron of sorts and slowly peeled back while meat is systematically removed from the carcass.

The first big difference is hanging. Had my friend shot this deer, the first step at this point would have been to hang the carcass for a week or so. The temperatures are plenty cool enough now and I probably wouldn’t have even skinned it right away. This hanging period allows the meat to dry and constrict. It makes butchering easier and the final product better. This is all well and good when you have clean meat with various cuts separated from each other by intact membranes. You field gut it, clean up around the wound and, for our hunting party, pull the tenderloins for the BBQ at the end of the controlled hunting week. When you have unknown internal damage, however, the story is a very different one. Separating the good meat from the damaged meat becomes crucial and time is of the essence. You start cutting as soon as you can.

The next major departure for me is how I go about cutting. On a hunted animal, my next step in butchering might be to pull the whole hide off. After that I would divide the animal into major cuts and then further cut those into the cuts for freezing. With a road killed animal, however, my focus is on keeping the damaged parts contained and separate from the good meat. While it would be nice to get a hide off intact and clean, this is a secondary consideration. This time around I did quite well on that front even though I peeled the deer slowly, top-to-bottom and pulled of meat as I went. In this way, I used the hide to keep everything contained further down the animal. Damaged portions under the hide couldn’t spill fluids further down the carcass and any fluids that did spill were liable to hit hide further down rather than open meat. On a previous carcass I ended up leaving the hide over an entire damaged area and then cutting that area away with the hide on. This sacrificed the hide but helped to keep the rest of the carcass clean.

The method of removing meat also differs for me and I remove sections as I go – either good sections that can be set aside for further processing or bad sections if they can be removed intact and kept away from the rest of the meat. This results in some interesting and atypical cuts – but since I’m not a butcher I don’t really know how to cut “by the books” anyhow.

Good Guys and Bad Hombres

Bruising

Although on the opposite side of the body from the majority of the damage, it was clear from the bruising that there had been damage to this forelimb.

I keep talking about good meat and damaged meat and it is critical to be able not only to differentiate them but also to understand where the natural barriers to contamination between those sections are.

The first thing to understand is the role that membranes play as barriers to infection. Muscles are sheathed in a layer of membrane — the fascia, commonly called “silverskin” when it is on the thicker side. These are less permeable to blood and bacteria than the muscle itself and so act as barriers to the progression of infection. Provided that the fascia is intact from end-to-end, you have bought some time before the bacteria concentration inside the muscle reaches problematic levels. There are also other even more significant divisions. The diaphragm separates the abdominal and thoracic cavities. With this deer, the abdominal cavity was an absolute mess but the thoracic cavity was pristine — moreso than on the majority of hunted deer where the lungs and heart were the targeted areas. In addition to membranes, there are divisions that arise partly by the lack of natural bridges. In animals without collarbones, the front legs just sort of “float” free of skeletal connection. There is a lot of connective tissue and some fat in there but the actual amount of blood flow and “wet” tissue between the abdomen and the shoulder is quite small and thus it is harder for infectious agents to travel through that gap than it is for them to slosh around inside the abdomen or even between the muscles of the leg.

The next thing to understand is why damaged areas are problematic in the first place. The key here is to understand that bacteria (as well as viruses and other nasties) require a few things to reproduce. For the ones we are concerned with, they require a reasonable temperature, food and water. The temperature requirement is why we refrigerate, freeze and cook food. We can slow the rate of bacterial growth by reducing the temperature or kill the micro-organisms outright by exceeding their critical maximum or minimum temperatures. The requirement for moisture is why we salt, smoke and otherwise dry food to preserve it. For us, the food requirement is of no use as, by definition, there is plenty of food to be found everywhere in the carcass.

Abdominal cavity spill-out

Even after shovelling away the gut pile, the remnants of the blood urine and shit remain. This is where the hide can act as a protective layer.

The last factor, then, is initial bacterial concentration. This is why pressure canning works. We take a bunch of food and water and stick it in a jar. We then raise the temperature above the critical point to sterilize the solution, at which point the jar can be left at temperatures that are ideal for bacterial reproduction but, absent that initial population, there is no danger. The interior of a deer’s body is somewhat similar. While the animal is alive and intact, its immune system keeps the build-up of dangerous micro-organisms in check. The skin keeps any infectious agents on the surface of the skin away from the blood and internal organs. The internal membranes slow the spread of infectious agents and allow the immune system to fight them in place.

… and then we hit the deer with our snow plow and the whole system is shot. The immune system shuts down with the death of the deer and bacterial populations already present get through perforated membranes or find themselves suddenly freed of the constraints of the relatively dry environment of, say, a tendon sheath as that sheath becomes flooded with blood. Short of drifting into CSI-like microbiological techniques, there is no way we can actually evaluate the safety of any particular area of the carcass in an absolute sense. Fortunately, we don’t need to and there are lots of clues we can use to separate out the edible from the dangerous:

    Pus on neck of deer

    The amount of pus discovered on this area of the deer’s neck is signs of a pre-existing wound or abscess.

  • Smell: If the area smells bad then discard it. There are some benign ways that areas can become tainted. Urine will taint meat, though it doesn’t actually represent a danger. The same is true for the contents of scent glands that will give meat an off taste. Purification is what we are worried about and so the safe option is that if you cut into an area and you get a whiff of unpleasantness then let it be.
  • Bruising: This is another one that isn’t, in and of itself, damning. If you shoot a deer and recover the body immediately then the damaged meat around the wound will have become flooded with blood and potentially micro-organisms from surrounding areas but if it can be cooled and dried immediately then you can trim and discard only a very small portion and the rest will be fine for at least the grinder. On the other hand, if time has passed, you have to be concerned that something nasty got in there and had time to reproduce and so the safe option is to discard the entire area.
  • Pus: On the deer in question, there was an area of the neck that was full of pus. Given the condition of the rest of the carcass, there was no way that the pus was a result of the accident that had killed it. Rather, it seemed to be a pre-existing abscess. If there is one thing you can be sure is dangerous, it is this. That pus represents the deer’s immune system working overtime to try to contain and destroy an infectious agent. The entirety of that area should be discarded.
  • Blood: There will be blood. Areas previously intact will bleed when you cut into them. What you need to be looking for is any area that has large amounts of clotted blood or when more blood gushes out than one would expect from that area. This can be a sign of internal damage. On this deer there was a whole layer of clotted blood on the inside of the abdominal cavity. It was obvious that the animal had experienced internal bleeding long before I got to it.

Using these cues, the good meat is separated from the bad and set aside.

Processing

Roadkill deer pieced out

The smaller cuts from the deer out on newspaper and then roasting racks to cool and dry.

After separating out the good meat, it is matter of processing it. Large cuts are either frozen whole or cut into smaller portions. In this case the shoulders were kept intact, though both fore-limbs needed to be truncated to remove damage. I also put an entire rack of ribs in the freezer, discarding the other due to damage and the concern that the soup of the abdominal cavity had rested directly on top of the internal membrane for an unknown amount of time. Other sections of the deer were cut into smaller pieces. One of the hams was fully recovered and separated into roasts by following the existing muscle divisions. The other ham was largely discarded due to damage. The heart was recovered from the thoracic cavity. The trachea was removed and draped over the top of the metal arch from which I hung the deer. A couple days later it was tossed to the dog who enjoyed its connective tissue.

As cuts were removed, my wife washed them and then put them out on newspapers on top of the snow on the raised beds for a preliminary dry an then onto oven roasting/drying racks to fully dry. With the cool temperatures and brisk wind, the cuts were both dry and chilled very quickly. Some cuts were then immediately vaccuum-sealed and frozen, while others were left in the fridge overnight and then sealed and frozen.

The astute reader will note that there was no substitution for the hanging process here. Because this carcass was not hung, I will be sure to fridge age the meat as it comes out of the freezer. I tend to do this anyhow, even with meat that has been hung, but it is particularly important for meat that was butchered “fresh.” I will place the meat in an open container in the fridge anywhere from a day to a week. I will drain any blood that pools in the container and for something like a roast will let it develop crust on the outside. I will then slice and cook as steaks.

Venison - aged and sliced

After being fridge aged, the roast is sliced and cooked as steaks.

Footnotes

  1. Seriously .. go to a grocery store, stand a little bit back from the meat section and squint .. now try to pick out the different types of meat based on colour. Once you’re used to looking at a freezer full of game the whole commercial meat industry begins to look plain silly – above and beyond how you may feel about it environmentally or ethically. ^

2 responses to “Roadkill

  • Excellent article! Very insighful and not the dummy version of anything. There is so much 5th grade book report garbage on the internet, it’s always nice to see something that is clearly informed by personal experience.

    • Thanks. I was thinking about starting a blog dedicated to quick summaries of the Hardy Boys books but given your informed opinions on the 5th grade book report format, I may have to re-consider and stick with self-sufficiency stuff. 😀

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