Where the rubber meets the road in Ill. is where the venison meets the freezer


It was quite a thrill for Mary Braun to skin the dead deer hanging from the rafters in the garage.

Forget about the fearsome collision and that initial rush of terror on the dark, country road. Forget about the shattered grill and crumpled running board on the family's aptly named Ram van.

Something about the events of that recent evening excited her, touching her in ways a good novel does -- as when they butchered a mastodon in "Clan of the Cave Bear."

"It's a question you always carry with you," said Ms. Braun, 44. "What would you do if you hit a deer with your car? Would you keep it?"

Ms. Braun's answer is in the freezer of her home in the tiny community of Wonder Lake, Ill.

Her family quickly chewed through the three pounds of deer jerky and most of the venison summer sausage, but they have tired of the stacks of chops provided by the local butcher who did the final handiwork on the deer.

When the taxidermist finishes stuffing the 10-point buck's head, the Brauns will hang the trophy in their rec room, and every day they will face the glassy stare of the deer they never saw standing in the middle of Thompson Road.

What happened to that deer, named Charlie Thompson by the Braun children, is becoming more and more commonplace in Illinois.

Not only is the number of Illinois deer being killed by trucks and automobiles rising sharply, but an increasing number of them are also winding up wrapped snugly in butcher paper and packed away in basement freezers.

"It may sound weird, but it saves you a couple hundred dollars on a grocery bill if you can eat venison instead of beef or pork," said Evelyn Allard, whose husband recently brought home a road-killed deer.

In these fat-fearing times, venison has come into greater demand, and a road-kill can yield more than 100 pounds of meat. Prices for farm-raised deer, the only kind that can be sold in butcher shops, typically start at $5 a pound.

Rather than let meat go to waste, the Illinois Department of Conservation began several years ago to allow drivers to claim the carcasses of the deer they kill. If the driver who hits the deer doesn't claim it, another person is free to do so.

The state requires, however, that the person claiming the road-killed deer report it to a regional office of the Illinois Conservation Department within 24 hours and obtain a free deer "tag."

As word has spread of this bounty in the ditch, competition for the carcasses has grown. An unclaimed dead deer can disappear from the roadside in minutes, especially in the fall and spring, when deer kills reach a peak and cool temperatures make the carcasses easier to handle.

Police dispatchers in most rural areas keep a list of favored people to call if a motorist hits a deer and doesn't claim it.

A Montgomery dispatcher recently woke Rick Mason at about 3 a.m. to tell him about a fine, freshly hit yearling on a rural Kane County road. As he has done "eight or 10" times over the last three years, Mr. Mason hitched up his empty snowmobile trailer and headed out into the night.

He found the deer on the roadside with a broken neck -- a good injury, from the butcher's perspective.

"If they got hit real hard by a car, you can have it ground up into brats and sausages," said Mr. Mason, a 33-year-old construction worker. "Unless they're really mangled, it's still salvageable. It just takes a little more work to get it out."

All this might strike some as being a trifle coarse. Anthropologists tell us, however, that a person who winces at collecting road kills might just be harboring food prejudices.

"These are deeply built in," said Michael Salovesh, an anthropology professor at Northern Illinois University. "Obviously there is no rational reason for it. . . . It's a learned response of 'Gee, that's disgusting.' "

Mike Radcliffe, 27, who has picked up a few road kills over the years, agrees. "Somebody just bumped it with their car," he said. "It's perfectly good."

Most of those collecting Illinois' road-killed deer are hunters who know that the animals must be gutted shortly after death -- usually within an hour or so, depending on the outdoor temperature -- or the meat will be spoiled.

Bob Jones, a butcher who owns Jones' Locker Service in Woodstock, Ill., said that of the 600 deer he processed last year, roughly 100 were killed on the road. Of those, perhaps 10 were handled improperly and had to be disposed of.

"Some of them are pretty bad," Mr. Jones said. "But that's what we have a bone barrel for."

Wildlife biologists explain the rise in the number of white-tail deer killed on the road this way: Farming and the absence of predators have helped the deer population boom, but the woodland cover the deer seek is becoming increasingly rare and fragmented.

As the deer move from one "island" of habitat to another, they must cross roads, or at least try to.

In 1989, 8,088 deer were reported killed on state-maintained roads, up from 2,797 killed in 1982, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation's most recent figures.

In Wisconsin -- which, like Indiana, Iowa and Michigan, also allows motorists to claim road-killed deer -- 22,000 of the 38,000 deer killed on highways were claimed.

The Donlons of Round Lake Beach claimed about a half-dozen dead Illinois deer last year. They keep a stash of large plastic bags in the roomy trunk of their 1978 Lincoln Continental, just in case.

Sheree Donlon, 33, keeps her eyes off the road as her husband drives. "We're trained to look in the ditches," she said.

And when they find a suitable dead deer, they haul it home and gut it in the driveway.

"I usually give away the organs," said Ms. Donlon. "My husband hates liver."

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