Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday

Note: This entry, while no more gruesome than Useless Creatures' usual fare, does contain photographs of a skinned, gutted deer as well as descriptions of the cleaning process.

Almost two weeks ago, I passed up the opportunity to call in a large buck that had been freshly-hit along US 41. At the time, I was rather frustrated with myself for not picking it up, but I also realized that there was no way I could handle processing such a large, heavy animal. There would be other deer, I told myself, and sure enough, today proved as much.

This morning, Steph and I decided we'd take a drive down US 41 in search of hit deer. It being Black Friday, the highway would have had a higher traffic volume earlier — people seeking deals in town, perhaps driving great distances to get to those stores. Between shoppers and folks headed home after Thanksgiving dinner, the chances for a deer-car collision were higher than usual, and I thought it would be a good time to go scavenging.

We didn't have to drive far: only a quarter-mile in, I spotted a small deer on the side of the road. Steph and I exchanged a glance: well, that was fast.

The hoarfrost along the highway was brilliant. It coated the tree branches and bushes and the dead vegetation poking above the snow; the sun was shining and it made everything sparkle. The first thing I noticed about the deer was that her whiskers were encrusted in that same hoarfrost, glittering brilliantly.

A small, yearling doe, she'd been hit overnight. I decided immediately that I would call the police and ask for a tag.

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Visible in the snow were the doe's last tracks before she was struck:

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It was a bit of a wait. First one state police officer arrived; he was young and very friendly, and we chatted a bit while waiting for his partner to show up with the tags. I told him that I'd eaten venison for the first time in 15 years the night before, for Thanksgiving (the meat was a gift from a co-worker); he seemed impressed that I intended to clean and butcher the deer myself. As we waited, two different men pulled over, both hoping that I had hit the deer and didn't want it. "They're like vultures," said the state trooper.

Complicating the matter further, it was discovered that the deer was shot, in or near the head. There was no record of this happening, so the policemen had to notify the conservation office. The collision had broken the doe's front leg (as well as the driver's headlight); even if it wasn't initially reported, I'm glad the driver took the initiative to put the deer out of her misery.

Finally, after signing some papers, we loaded the doe into the back of the Subaru. Then the real fun began.

After dragging the doe into the backyard, I began cutting her open. Out popped her stomach and intestines, and then I asked myself what on earth do I do next? I called up our neighbor Clyde from down the street; a few days prior, he'd picked up a roadkill doe of his own (weighing in at 140 pounds!), and I asked him if he could give me a hand. Together we set up a pulley on one of our trees, and hoisted up the doe. Clyde then told me what to do next, and under his directions, I was able to complete the gutting process.

It was a lot like the dream I described in my previous post. I was elbow-deep in the deer's body, cutting away the diaphragm, working my fingers past the warm slickness of her heart and lungs, and then — pulling. The organs slopped out into a pile, glistening and colorful. I thanked Clyde for his help, then took more photographs.

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The tag, I was told, was to be kept on the body until the butchering process. 

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Next came the skinning process. It was incredibly easy, and I'm not sure I've ever skinned an animal so quickly.

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Without her thick winter coat, the doe suddenly appeared much tinier. While skinning her, I discovered that she had been shot not in the head, but in the neck, the crumpled bullet still lodged in her muscle.

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Tomorrow I will embark upon the task of butchering the doe. Because she was so young when she died, and because the collision only damaged her front leg, her meat should be very good. I went to the local grocery store to pick up some freezer bags and freezer paper; upon greeting the cashier, he said with a smile, "Someone shot a deer." I told him that I'd actually picked it up off the side of the road, to which he replied, "Ah, I've cooked many a roadkill deer."

This afternoon, after the doe had been gutted and skinned, I happened to glance out our front window — just in time to see two deer bound across the road, their white tails flagging as they jumped. They were gone within seconds.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Opening Weekend

Friday marked the opening day of Michigan's deer firearm season. It's an occasion treated as a holiday by many; some hunters take the day off, if it's a workday, leaving their desk behind for a blind or tree stand. Blaze-orange hats grace the dashboard of many a vehicle, bars hang up their "WELCOME, HUNTERS!" banners, and gas stations sell large bags of carrots and apples and beets. Talk in the coffee shop, workplace, and grocery store ultimately revolves around hunting and venison recipes; local taxidermists advertise themselves with a renewed fervor, anticipating a flood of trophy mounts. It's an exciting time to be a hunter, a dangerous time to be a deer, and a fascinating time to be observing, from the sidelines.

It's during this time of year that roadkill deer become more conspicuous to me: while their kin are being felled by bullets, these deer are victim to cars. Sometimes they are retrieved, spared from a public decomposition alongside the highway; others are not. A freezer's worth of meat goes to waste, as often these deer die in so busy a place that not even the crows or coyotes will risk scavenging the carcass.

Last night, I dreamt I found a dead buck alongside the highway. He was a fresh hit, still warm, and I gutted him on the spot. It was a visceral, vivid dream, and when I woke up, I could still feel the hot sliminess of his internal organs sliding along my hands and forearms.

It was a warmish morning, with temperatures hovering around 40°F, and Steph and I took a drive south down US 41. The highway was clear, and after fifteen miles, the only roadkill critter we'd seen had been a skunk, dead on the center line. We turned around, heading back home, and that's when I spotted a dead deer in the ditch — it had somehow evaded my sight on our first pass. We turned around and parked to get a closer look.

It was a buck: neck swollen, hooves large, tarsal glands dark. Both his antlers had been snapped off during the impact — one laid several feet away, broken mid-beam, strong bone splintered.

A section of his back had been ripped open, exposing the meat and fat beneath the skin — a hind leg was twisted unnaturally — a sheen of blood lined his nostrils. The buck smelled of the rut, a strong, heady odor that permeated the immediate vicinity of his roadside deathbed. His face was calm.

He was also fresh. I wanted desperately to call him in — to be issued a tag — to take him home and butcher him. In retrospect, I could have, and I should have — and I would have, had I possessed more confidence in the whole thing. There will always be more roadkill deer, I tell myself, and it's true. 

I kept the broken antler. It smells of the buck's final habits while still alive: rubbing against a spruce tree. It's an intimate view of a life no longer living.