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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Driving Animals to Their Deaths

The Vegan Vine; Squirrel crossing the road
I was driving from Pennsylvania to New Jersey to visit my family for Thanksgiving. I drove cautiously while following the 35 mph speed limit. Suddenly, from the far corner of my eye I saw a squirrel dart onto the road toward my car. With no time to think (brake or speed up?), I moved to get away. I screamed "NO!" when I felt the thump of the squirrel's body under my car. I slowed down and looked into my rear-view mirror, eager not to see him. I hoped against hope that he managed to get away with minor scratches, but then I saw his little body lying in the road. I quickly turned the car around and parked alongside him, blocking the right lane to keep us both from passing cars. I crouched down next to him. He was alive but barely, and he had a little bit of blood near his mouth. He was looking up at me from one side and breathing heavily, his body heaving. I ran to my trunk to put on gloves and grab a cardboard carrier that I kept for animal emergencies. As I did so, a woman pulled up next to my car and asked if I was okay. I said yes and thanked her. She wanted to know if I was sure. Yes, I assured her, thanking her once again. I closed my trunk and quickly went back to the squirrel but it was too late. His breathing stopped and his eyes were closed. I put gentle pressure by the corner of his eye to see if there was a reflex but there was none. I felt awful; the poor creature suffered and died all alone. I gently picked him up, his body still warm, and moved him to the side of the road. I kept telling him how sorry I was over and over and over again as tears streamed down my face. In between gasping sobs I gave voice to a short prayer my mother taught me when I was a child during trips to my grandfather's grave. Feeling incredibly helpless and grief stricken, I stayed with him for a few moments before getting back in the car.

The ramifications of powering machines that can maim and kill, which was drilled in to many of us when we first learned to drive, often diminishes over time. Driving can seem so routine that we lose touch with the gravity of getting behind the wheel. Driver's education teaches us to respect pedestrians and other drivers but rarely, if ever, are we taught measures to revere the lives and habitats of other animals.

Vegans take great pains to make mindful choices that reduce and eliminate our impact on other beings. Our advocacy for animals requires us rethink every sector of society and our own actions continuously. We should not, therefore, overlook our modes of transportation or driving habits.

Incidents of road rage are on the rise. We feel cocooned and removed in our cars, which allows us to act self-importantly. We're generally self-absorbed with our own agendas and heavily distracted by music, technology, passengers, drinking, eating, etc. More often than not, we're simply focused on getting to wherever it is we're going and as fast as we can.

The rise of car culture grew out of the post WWII boom and the network of interstate highways developed under the Eisenhower administration. The expansion of roads led to the growth of suburbs, large housing developments, shopping centers, and strip malls, simultaneously promoting capitalism, cars, and consumption so humans could drive and devour farther, faster, and more frequently. Combined with a growing populace, car culture made us more mobile and helped fuel the Biocaust—the destruction of animals, habitats, and ecosystems.

Driving has become more difficult for me since becoming vegan. I'm no longer insensitive to the environmental strain or the countless bodies lying in or beside the road on any given day. Each time I see a deceased animal, I'm reminded that that doe, squirrel, opossum, chipmunk, cat, raccoon, bird, frog, rabbit, or other being had a life, family, friends, a home, and died a tragic and preventable death.

Just as we have become desensitized to the violence we inflict on animals for food, clothing, entertainment, etc., so too have we become desensitized to the animals who die on our roads and highways. We take their lives for granted and accept their deaths as the inevitable price of progress. Even the way we talk about them conveys otherness and detachment. Roadkill is a dissociative and speciesist term akin to bacon and ham that keeps us from recognizing animals as the individuals they were before we killed them or had them killed for us. Frightened and injured deer who have collided with cars are euphemistically said to be humanely destroyed by the cops who shoot them.

The number of animal deaths due to driving is hard to measure. Not including insects, approximately half a billion animals are killed every year on US roads alone, making driving the second leading cause of animal death after the consumption of their flesh.

Living in the suburbs as I do, there is a considerable lack of mass transportation, and walking and bicycle paths. Even if there were more paths, so many places are too great a distance away to make walking or riding a bicycle even practical, but that doesn't mean we can't be more mindful and considerate regarding our travels.

We should give the same consideration to our excursions as we do our purchases and question whether our oil-fueled trips are even necessary. Some things we can do:

  • Eliminate frivolous and extraneous car trips all together. 
  • Try to make the most efficient use of time and travel by grouping errands by location. With a little forethought and planning, we can limit additional trips, limit our time on the road, reduce fuel usage, and lessen the chances of coming into​ contact with other animals.
  • Avoid traveling by car around dusk and dawn when free-roaming animals are most active. 
  • Drive slower than the speed limit. The speed limit is the legal maximum speed; there is nothing against the law about going below the limit. Driving slower gives us more control to brake and avoid hitting other animals.
  • Avoid rural back roads. Short cuts may sometimes be faster, especially during rush hour, but they typically run through more active animal communities, presenting more opportunities for accidents.
  • Take the time to notice and really see other animals.

When tragedy strikes, roadside memorials can help raise consciousness about the lives of other animals. We leave flowers where people have been killed, why can't we do the same for other animals? When safe, we can also pull over and remove an animal's broken body from the road as a way to express atonement.

Each time I see an animal who has been killed by a car-wielding human, I mourn and say the same prayer for him or her that I said on that awful Thanksgiving morning. It is the very least I can do. Since that time, I've become more mindful and aware of other animals while driving, both in my car and in the cars of others. I'm more outspoken as a passenger because I think it's vital to make the lives and interests of other animals more visible to others, as in all areas of life. I care very little whether someone thinks I'm a backseat driver, and I make sure to alert other drivers to their speed and animals in the area. For example, I alerted former coworkers to a family of groundhogs who often traveled back and forth over the parking entrance to our office building.

I'm thankful; I know not everyone is fortunate to own a car or has the ability to drive one, and while I enjoy the conveniences my car provides, I also despise the necessity and prevalence of automobiles. Advertisers appeal to our egos by persuading us to view our cars as expressions of our personalities, sex appeal, or social standing, but cars are nothing more than machines. They are—like so many other human inventions—both useful and destructive. With the exception of those who live in cities, it's very difficult to eliminate the car from daily modern life, but we can make better, more thoughtful choices regarding how we drive and how often.

In my utopia, cars would not exist and we'd go back to living in traditional, small town neighborhoods with everything for simple living within walking or bicycling distance. Until the day when I can relocate to such a place, I'm left with my driving anxieties and complicities. Unlike Willie Nelson, I just can't wait to get off the road again.


Photo courtesy of The Daily Progress/Ryan M. Kelly

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