Taking Care of Roadkill

By Elizabeth White

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

It's a common sight on Cape Cod public highways: the body of some unfortunate critter in the middle of the road. Usually by the next day it's gone, whisked off to some unknown place. Uncertainly surrounds how best to take care of road kill, and towns differ in their disposal policies.

Sitting in her navy blue police uniform, Sheryl Malone explains that she loves animals. Malone is the Dennis animal control officer. Part of her job is to pick up domestic pets that have been hit by cars. Wild animals are picked up by the highway department. Anything smaller than a squirrel, Malone says, is left for the bigger animals to eat.

Sheryl Malone: "If I see a squirrel or a chipmunk or something like that, if I can, I'll stop and move them to the side of the road, just to give them a little dignity. And also to prevent scavengers from going into the road to pick up that road kill and then they get whacked. So the skunks, the crows, the coyotes, the raccoons that scavenge those animals, I feel that by moving them to the side of the road they're at least returned to nature and do someone some good."

In the past, animals picked up by the town were buried in the town's landfill.

Sheryl Malone: "We had our own little burial ground, a little cemetery. But when the transfer station came along and the dump was capped, we're no longer allowed to bury just every animal down there anymore."

Malone makes every effort to find the deceased pet's owner and return the body to them. But eventually, if unsuccessful, she must dispose of it in the town's trash compactor.

Sheryl Malone: "It bothers me that I can't have a little animal cemetery for the thirty or forty animals I get a year, and almost all of them are cats. Ah, and I think it would not be a problem with pollution, but whatever government entity has decided that you can't do that, even in that same amount, necessitates what we have to do with them, which is a lot less pleasant."

Malone's spoken with employees of other towns who choose to ignore this distant beaurocratic decree.

Sheryl Malone: "And I'll say how do you get away with burying them because we're not supposed to do that anymore? Nobody really seems to know who said that, or why, or who to talk to about it, so it's kinda been an unanswered question for a number of years now. So every town just does whatever it can to get the job done as neatly and quietly as possible, and not have anybody come down and say, 'you can't do that anymore.'

Two decades ago, the Department of Environmental Protection ruled that no more refuse, animal or otherwise, was to go in the ground. At that time, all the towns on the Cape had to switch from landfills to transfer stations, where trash is then carted away for incineration at the SeaMast waste facility up 495. However, the Board of Health also states that any animal suspected of infection with rabies should be buried three feet below ground. Bob Canning, a health agent in the town Orleans for twenty-two years, says conflicting regulations have left towns with no clear disposal procedure.

Bob Canning: "So trying to juggle the interests of public health, the requirements of the state, it's very difficult to make a determination as to how to dispose of the road kill."

Orleans treats every animal found dead as a potential source of rabies. So the town chooses to bury all animals pick up off its public roads. Canning says putting animals in the trash compactor creates a health risk for transfer station employees.

Bob Canning: "We don't want an animal to go in, have it pushed through the compacter, have the container it's in be compromised in anyway, then have the landfill employee kind of blindly pushing the trash in a trailer so they can close the door for transportation, and be exposed to the animal itself."

The odds aren't very high, but an employee could potentially be snagged by a tooth or claw.

Rick McKean: "Here it is, this where we bury them."

Transfer station mechanic, Rick McKean, points to an uncapped parcel of land in the back corner of the Orleans landfill. The small declivity doesn't look much like a cemetary: the graves are unmarked and bits of trash are caught in a few fallen tree limb. The Mid- Cape highway hums just out of sight beyond the ridge. The former burial site, like the rest of the landfill, is now covered with plastic. McKean remembers that years ago a whale was even buried there.

Rick McKean: "Back in the olds days, I'm sure they buried their horses and cows, and everything else. But we're not really equipped to that now. And I don't think many residents have cows or livestock that need to be buried. In many cases they just do that on their own property."

The Orleans health department stresses the plot is only a short-term solution. Long-term solutions could include the services of companies like Angle View in Middleboro. The company rents portable freezers where the animals can be stored and then shipped off- Cape for cremation by trained professionals. Residents may still bury their cats and dogs in the back yard.

If you see a dead cat or dog on the road, contact your town's animal control officer. Wild animals should be reported to the town's health department.

Broadcast April 20, 2006

Elizabeth White reports for the Cape and Islands NPR Stations.