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Two weeks ago a dog locked in a hot car died a horrible death at a Toronto mall. The high-profile incident has caused a discussion about animal safety and led to a wave of calls to Toronto police about pets locked in vehicles. This tragic event is a reminder that if you love animals you should think twice about cars.
Each and every day automobiles and their infrastructure kill astounding numbers of living creatures. Sprawling automobile landscapes have encroached on many animals’ living spaces. Wildlife that can’t or won’t cross roads are unable to feed or reproduce as effectively in fragmented areas. New highway construction, for instance, has severed Florida’s jaguars (the cat, not the car) from significant portions of their living space. Road building also threatens Canadian grizzly bears and Colorado’s pronghorn antelope.
Beyond roadways, automobile pollutants – from benzene to formaldehyde and ozone to particulate matter – harm animal health in ways that are as varied as the species affected. Automobiles endanger pets in a number of other ways, from the unsuspecting dogs that lap up poisonous antifreeze to the thousands of pets that die trapped in hot, parked cars every year.
Most disturbingly, the more than six million kilometres of North American highway host an open-air slaughterhouse where millions of anonymous victims are permanently silenced. The Humane Society claims U.S. automobiles flatten as many as a million animals per day; cats, dogs, gophers, skunks (these myopic little critters see barely ten feet ahead), frogs, iguanas, black bears, coyotes, hawks, magpies, salamanders, snakes, pelicans, squirrels, hedgehogs and the like meet an untimely death as highway road kill.
In Maine, the porcupine is the most common victim while in California it’s the raccoon. Deer alone are hit more than 4,000 times per day by cars, SUVs and other U.S. vehicles. In 1995 deer were involved in a whopping 1 in 6 vehicle crashes in Wyoming.
With U.S. residents travelling 16,000 kilometres a year on average, death-by-car has surpassed hunting as the leading cause of death for vertebrate animals. “Road kill rates for certain species”, noted a July 2010 Psychology Today article, “may exceed natural causes of mortality due to predation and disease.”
In a bid to salvage something from the carnage, groups recover the carcasses and donate what’s edible to feed the poor. The Inland Northwest Wildlife Council of Spokane, Washington, for instance, collects about 5,000 pounds of meat each year from roadkill (mostly moose, elk and deer), which they donate to the local Union Gospel Mission. In Alaska, where moose, bear and caribou are state property, police are required to call charities to pick up the carcasses. Elsewhere, people cook the meat themselves or take it to a roadkill grill (to learn more, Google “roadkill cuisine”).
Less adventurous (or hungry), a concerned group in California has taken a different tack, setting up a website to document the slaughter. Tied to the University of California Davis’ Road Ecology Center, Wildlifecrossing.net catalogues animals killed by vehicles. Describing the site, the New York Times noted hundreds of individuals “contribute photos and GPS coordinates of dead animals they see along the roads and upload them to the site. A retired veterinarian, Ron Ringen, whose friends call him ‘Doctor Roadkill,’ has logged some 1,400 animals on the site.”
In an odd twist ‘Doctor Roadkill’ and other Wildlifecrossing.net contributors track animal deaths in their cars. Another irony of the auto age is that it’s in this preeminent symbol of our insulated industrialized culture where many interact with wildlife. “For some people,” explained Frasier Shilling of wildlifecrossing.net, “the only contact they have with wild animals is when they run them over.”
It is beyond strange that thousands protest the killing of baby seals, but do not even bother to discuss the far greater number of animals massacred on North American roads daily.
Perhaps PETA should consider the private automobile for their next campaign.
Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi are the authors of Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism: On the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. Yves’ most recent book is Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt.