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Reverence for roadkill

BETHANY BEACH, DEL. — BETHANY BEACH, Del. - Out in the wet dawn the other day I found a glistening red fox in the grass by the road. He seemed asleep, except that his eyes were open.

Later, while cycling on the Ocean Highway, I passed a full-grown doe lying in a ditch near Fenwick Island. She, too, seemed unhurt: no marks, no dislocation, no blood. Like the fox, she was still and wet and open-eyed. Half a mile on, I saw a crushed female mallard. She must have been hit while lifting off the asphalt.

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"Somebody should do something," said my wife, when I told her of the day's roadkill count.

But what?

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Should we deploy hunters to cull the deer? That's not a good idea. Most of the kill I've seen has been in areas where that would be forbidden. Wild creatures live among us now. That's why we're killing more and more of them with our cars, trucks and SUVs. A relative up from hurricane-afflicted Florida gave me an explanatory simile. It's for the same reason, he said, that more houses these days are being ripped up by storms: "People have moved into parts where there were no people before. So now, whichever way a storm moves, it's going to get somebody's house."

We're taking over their habitat. We're getting them no matter which way we turn, annihilating entire species. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are only about 80 ocelot left in the entire country. Sentient creatures of all sorts are dying by the millions on the roads: birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals - including a couple hundred humans every year, who collide with larger animals, such as deer or bear. But usually, all we feel is a slight bump; all we see is an explosion of feathers.

Some people around here like to boast that the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware is among the fastest-growing regions in the country. Every spring we see evidence of that in getting here: house upon house upon house, planted in fields where wheat and corn once grew. Delaware alone lost 21 percent of its farmland to development between 1970 and 1997, according to state planners. It's still disappearing at an astonishing rate.

About five years ago, I saw something I wish I could forget. We were driving south on Route 113 toward Millsboro, a stretch of road once heavily wooded on both sides. We came to an expanse of recently cleared land. Out in the middle of this vast space stood a solitary deer, stock still, in that way animals affect when they attempt to hide in plain sight. His very posture conveyed bewilderment, I thought, shock that the forest around him could disappear just like that.

These days along that road there are new cleared spaces, and we expect more houses. They've already built a huge cemetery, which suggests sound planning, at least in that regard: Many of the people moving into southern Delaware are retirees.

I wonder how many people think about all these animals we're knocking off as something other than organic litter on the roadside. That is, as creatures with whom we share the light of consciousness. To bend the mind in that direction is an exercise in humaneness, though many dismiss it as anthropomorphism - attributing human characteristics to animals. If you start, it can disturb your peace of mind.

Barry Lopez, whose Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award in 1986, writes of trying to understand animals by assessing the meaning of their lives in relation to our own. He is a field biologist who visits remote parts of the planet to learn about animals.

But the scientific study of wild creatures, as it is today, he says, militates against achieving that understanding. The orthodoxy of Western science won't admit "many factors that set an individual animal apart from the standard description of the species. Fearful of being thought anthropomorphic ... [biologists] shy away from any evidence of reason or emotion in animals."

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Mr. Lopez, unintimidated by this, follows a reverential practice: When he encounters animals killed on the highway, he drags them into the grass or brush, "out of decency." He is animated by a respect for something in the creatures we are discouraged by our culture from believing is there, a quality we hope is within ourselves and which demands a ceremonial response.

I don't think Mr. Lopez is suggesting we do what he does. I think he simply wants to discourage people from thinking dismissively of these animals as roadkill.

But as what, then? Possibly as something lost to us.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Sun.


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