Bambi Pizza: All in a Day’s Work

June 3, 2007

Note: This column is based in part on a story I wrote for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.

On the shoulder of I-81 near Harrisburg, Pa., Nancy Statler spotted the foreleg of a deer. She stopped her old red Blazer, pulled on a pair of sky-blue rubber gloves, and tossed the deer-bit into the trailer. Finding a skimpy break in the riot of cars and big rigs, dashed out to a furry smear in the travel lane. She bent, peeled it away from the asphalt, and flopped the Bambi pancake over into the trailer, causing a flurry of stink and disturbed flies.

By this time, I’m starting to get used to the smell, but her foray into the Russian Roulette of I-81’s river of truck traffic almost stopped my heart.

It’s all in a day’s work for Statler, and she loves the gig.

“I love this job. Out driving the the countryside most of the day.

Nobody hassles me. I’m my own boss.”

Statler is married, and a grandmother 15 times over. She gets up at 3 a.m. Before heading out to pick up deer, she runs a paper route, then a school bus route, and then heads out for six to eight hours a day looking for smashed deer.

By 8:30 on the morning of May 8, she already had two deer in her home-made trailer. Two hours later, the count was eight and a fraction deer and one slightly queasy reporter.

She was on her way to pick up two more. Deer, not reporters.

The first deer we stopped to get had been hurled about a dozen feet off the road along the Interstate. She stopped, and I got out, figuring if I’m going to be along for the ride, I can be useful. I asked if I could help her. Forty years ago I had a job picking up roadkill for a city garbage department. I figured the smell wouldn’t bother me.Nancy at the office
“Do I look like I need help?” Nancy said. Clearly, she did not. She grabbed the doe by the back feet and dragged it up the slope, up the trailer ramp, and tucked the corpse cozily against its two new trailermates.

I snapped a couple of photos. And the gentle spring breeze shifted from off my left shoulder to off the top of the trailer.

I discovered that 40 years is too long. All of my olfactory calluses were long gone. I didn’t lose my breakfast, because I had been smart enough not to eat breakfast that morning. But it definitely gave me a case of flutters that remained with me for the rest of the morning.

The Interstate and other highways in the area give Nancy plenty to do. Tuesday and Wednesday of the previous week, she drove a total of 334 miles and picked up 16 deer, 11 in Cumberland County and five in neighboring Adams. In Nov. of 2006, she picked up a total of 126 deer.

Some days, not often, there are no deer called in. She drives about 38,000 miles per year.

She smokes, and when she feels it’s time for a break, she snacks from a number of prepackaged pastries lined up on the dash of her Blazer.

Nancy is self-employed, one of 48 contractors who bid out their services to the state highway department for the removal of dead deer.

She wouldn’t say how much she gets per deer, since it’s a competitive bidding process. Evidently, people are lining up to do the work. Who knew? Anyway, the highway department told me that the contractors picked up 10,000 deer last year, part of the state total of 30,000 to 36,000 dead deer picked up by people like Nancy, PennDOT county maintenance crews, and by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The average cost to the state for contractors like Nancy is a little more than $46 per deer, though the price varies a good bit through the state because the costs of things like disposal at licensed landfills can range from $25 to nearly $90 per deer. Those costs, along with vehicles, fuel, maintenance, and insurance, all come out of the contractor’s pockets.

I’ve heard people gripe about paying to have dead deer removed from the roadsides. Let nature take care of them, they say.

Right.

Nature did not have a lot to do with the deer being there. In nature, anything that killed the deer would eat most of it, and scavengers pilfer the leftovers.

If the cars and truck that hit the deer would eat them, we wouldn’t have much off a problem. Until we can find a way to power vehicles with venison, there is not much of an option. Nancy said there are plenty of good reasons for getting the deer off the road, shoulder, and right-of-way.

Nobody wants to look at rotting carcasses, and there are a lot of those every year as deer/vehicle collisions continue to rise. Likewise, a dead deer will put out a lot of bad smell before it decomposes entirely, a process that can take weeks. And you don’t even want to think about what happens when a PennDOT mower runs over a rotting 150-pound deer.

Yeah, I know. I TOLD you not to think about it.

Nancy said that the number of deer and their size varies from season to season. In hunting season and during the rutting season, there are more bucks. This time of year, most of the road kills are does that have come down from the high country to give birth to fawns.

She has a winch if she comes across a deer too heavy for her to lift.

She’s needed it just twice in the last two months. One buck weighed at least 180 pounds. She once found a 9-point buck. She said people ask if she keeps such trophies.

“Nope. He went to the landfill, just like the others. I wouldn’t want to do it, and if I did, I could lose my contract,” she said.

During hunting season, she said, about 60 percent of the bucks she picks up have been beheaded for their antlers. “That’s pretty sad,” she said.

Yes, she still likes to eat venison. No, she doesn’t take road-kill home. For one thing, she wouldn’t get paid for it, and for another, the deer she picks up have been dead for the most part for at least 24 hours, sometimes longer. A LOT longer. The smell takes some getting used to.

“The smell doesn’t bother me too much unless it’s 100-plus degrees and the deer has been torn up real bad and out there for a few days. That gets pretty raunchy.”

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