ROCKPORT — A mink pelt hangs next to the bed of a 38-year-old Rockport man as a reminder that the universe always provides a meal.
Moments before the mink’s demise, the man wondered when he’d stumble upon his next roadkill. It had been months since his last find, and he was hungry for meat.
Just then, a mink darted out of the ditch and under his tire.
“I was wishing for roadkill, and the universe delivered a roadkill,” Matt said.
The self-described “extreme foodie,” “freegan,” or simply “local scrounger” lives on what he grows in his garden, gathers from trash bins and the forest — and roadkill. The mink is the only animal he’s killed himself.
Normally, friends call him when they spot a dead animal on the road — owl, opossum, raccoon, coyote or deer. To him, it’s the ultimate version of sustainability.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “You’re taking something that’s trash and turning it into the most expensive thing you could buy — wild meat. It’s organic, local and free-range … It’s beyond grass-fed. It’s brush-fed.”
Matt spoke about his roadkill habit on the condition that his last name not be used, because collecting roadkill is illegal.
“Can you believe it?” he said. “Sustainability is illegal.”
Tough law to enforce
It is against the law to pick up and keep roadkill — any native animal from a squirrel to a moose — here in Washington, said Sgt. Rich Phillips, Department of Fish and Wildlife supervisor in Skagit County. Even picking up a piece of roadkill, including a raccoon tail or coyote hide, is against the law. Violators could face up to 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
According to Phillips, the law stems from a time when cars were built to withstand an impact rather than crumple to protect the occupants and were more likely to be used as hunting weapons.
“If you drove a 1959 Buick, you could kill a lot of deer with it,” Phillips said. “It’s like driving a battleship.”
While there is a season for gun, bow and muzzleloader hunting, Phillips said, “there is no season for car.”
“It’s supposed to be a sport,” Phillips said. “There is supposed to be some fair play in the hunting of deer. There’s very little fair about hunting with a vehicle.”
Phillips has been a fish and wildlife officer in the state for 33 years, so he’s seen his fair share of roadkill. Still, he’s written only one roadkill ticket.
“That was someone who picked up a roadkill deer and fed it to their mountain lion in Stanwood many, many years ago,” he said.
Roadkill enthusiasts see the rule as unnecessary and wasteful because it requires letting perfectly good meat rot on the side of the road.
But without the law against taking roadkill in place, “we have no way of knowing if it was legally harvested or not,” Phillips said. “The last thing we want to do is referee every roadkill. That’s where it comes into the blanket ‘it’s illegal’ and we don’t have to worry about what the circumstances are.”
Most of the time, officers catch roadkill connoisseurs when another person reports their license plate as they are loading a deer into a truck, said Sgt. Kim Chandler, with the Department of Fish and Wildlife in King County.
Of the 10 deer or elk killed by cars in 2011 in Skagit County, Sgt. Phillips said three or four were salvaged and given to area Native American tribes. But most of the time, wildlife officers can’t find places to accept the meat because of federal food inspection requirements.
“We try to find a tribe, or we’ve given it to food banks,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we gave it to jails and orphanages. You can’t do that anymore.”
From vegan to roadkill
To Matt, that’s a shame.
Several years ago, he was the least-likely candidate for deer steaks or owl wings. He was a vegan — eating no animal products, including eggs and dairy. But his diet began giving him health problems, like painful stomach aches and 30 cavities over the course of his seven years as a vegan. He couldn’t get enough protein and calcium from plants alone.
“I was running on a sugar high,” he said.
He started eating canned fish. Then, one day, he found a dead deer in the road and took it home. It had been hit in the head, but the meat was untouched and still warm.
“It was a mint-condition, big-ass deer,” he said.
But his roadkill menu took a turn to the exotic when he met a girl who cooked up some raccoon for breakfast.
“It grossed me out at first,” he said.
But from then on, he was sold on the idea. He’s been living on found meat ever since. Raccoon is one of his favorites.
“The flavor — roasted — Oh, my God,” he said. “With veggies, garlic, rosemary and salt, cooked in a dutch oven until the meat falls off the bone like ribs or something — so rich.”
Lunch with Matt
Matt invited several guests to his house recently to sample his specialty: roasted roadkill raccoon.
The aroma of garlic and roasting meat filled his yurt as a curry deer-bone broth simmered. He chopped up potatoes, onions and squash to add to the raccoon, and toasted hazelnuts on the wood stove. A neighbor brought a dish of sunchokes and gathered mushrooms.
As the meal cooked, Matt showed how he makes jerky by cutting frozen deer muscles into thin slices, marinating them in saltwater infused with juniper berries, and then drying the meat on a rack in his yurt.
He has learned about some dangers of roadkill, such as an incurable parasite that raccoons carry. (He assured the guests that it wouldn’t survive the cooking.) But he warned anyone who plans to eat raccoon to use plastic gloves during the butchering process.
He pulled the cast iron pan from the oven to reveal two thick raccoon legs, covered in herbs and garlic, with the meat pulling away from the bone — just as he likes it.
Everyone gathered around the table.
One person suggested giving thanks to the animals for the meal.
“And the drivers too,” Matt added. “It takes two.”
Health benefits and risks
Matt said when he started eating roadkill, he saw his health return. He has more sustained energy, his mood has brightened, and he hasn’t had another cavity.
He thinks everyone should pick up roadkill, rather than let it go to waste.
“It’s just tragic that people are eating at McDonald’s when there is this,” he said. “It’s free, it’s nutritionally superior and it’s good for my health. I like to think I’m eating better than the 1 percent. I feel like I’m eating richer than rich people. You can’t buy this food.”
Matt says he’s never been sickened by his roadkill meals, though he does a lot of research to learn how to prepare it.
Law enforcement and health officials say there are some dangers to the practice.
“Most of these critters carry all sorts of bugs,” Sgt. Phillips said. “Ringworm, trichinosis, brucellosis — there’s tons of nasty things out there that people need to be aware of. There’s very little glorification in sitting on the highway with a spatula.”
Regardless of source, any animal could be safe to eat if it’s prepared properly, said Peter Browning, Skagit County Health Department director.
“Between 145-160 degrees, it’s going to be fine — 160 degrees is optimal,” Browning said.
When Browning grew up in Whatcom County, eating roadkill deer was common.
“You hit a deer and throw it in the back of your car,” he said.
Roadkill jerky or sausage could pose some health threat if the meat is not completely dried or cooked properly.
Still, Browning said he’s curious.
“People say that possum really tastes good, but they’re such a creepy little animal,” he said.
The biggest health concern is whether the collision ruptured internal organs. Animals struck by vehicles are torn asunder, with stomach contents mixing in with shards of bone throughout the meat.
“It’s a bunch of meat that, for lack of a better term, has been struck by a 3,000-pound bullet going 60 mph,” Sgt. Phillips said. “The meat’s going to be of dubious quality.”
A personal relationship
Matt admits that his roadkill diet stems, in part, from his obsession with novelty and trying something new. (He thinks veganism is a dying and unhealthy trend).
“I’m a novelty hound,” he said.
He revels in the reactions people when they find out how he eats and is entertained by the forensics of each roadkill.
“Every animal is going to be slightly different,” he said. “It’s going to have its own autopsy.”
Most of all, he likes knowing exactly where his food comes from and what’s put on it, rather than chemically processed, prepackaged food from grocery stores.
“People have a lack of personal relationship with their food,” he said. “That’s something you can’t buy or get strictly from a book. It’s something you have to do.”
Matt said he’s not the only one on the prowl. Other people are jumping on the roadkill bandwagon as the logical extension of eating local, he said.
Just in Skagit County, he’s noticed competition.
“Chances of finding a good deer are less and less,” he said.
When it’s slim pickings and he doubts he’ll find enough to eat, Matt looks at his mink hide as a reminder that something is just around the corner.
But in the end, he said, “It’s very hit and miss.”