All winter long, Jeff Potter has been fielding the phone calls. They started coming in after the first frosts. "Last autumn, my brother phones on his way home from the grocery: 'I was driving to the store and there wasn't a deer in the road, but on the way back there was, so it's gotta be fresh!' "
Potter, who lives in exurban Lansing, Mich., was busy processing mail orders for his outdoor sports business, but he knew he had to act fast or someone might beat him to it. He spread a tarp in the back of the family minivan and raced to the scene, where he found a young doe on the shoulder of the road. He pulled the deer into the van, then called the police for permission to take it home. To eat.
Potter is a 53-year-old father of two who operates Out Your Backdoor, a website dedicated to "indie" outdoor culture. He has hunted, fished, biked and skied around Williamston, Mich., his whole life. Today it's much less rural than it was when he was a kid, but "there's still this tremendous amount of interstitial space that deer thrive in," he says. And during the fall mating season, when the animals start getting frisky, "there are tremendous numbers of car-deer accidents around here."
Potter is known among his friends and family for collecting roadkill of all species: deer, pheasant, turkey, rabbit, squirrel. They call him when they spot felled critters by the roadside, and he serves stews and roasts made from them at family dinners and large dinner parties. How do his guests rate the meals? So far, he says, he's "batting 1,000." Roadkill venison makes up the near totality of the red meat his family consumes. And no one's ever gotten sick.
There were more than a million deer killed on U.S. roads and highways last year, and laws vary state to state on the permissibility of collecting them. Some states donate the meat to charity. The practice is even endorsed by PETA as a healthier, cruelty-free way to consume meat. In Michigan, roadkill deer and bear are finders-keepers, first come, first served — as long as you report it to the police. Michigan recently revised its roadkill collection laws, making it easier for anyone to collect game year-round, as long there's a written record of where and when it was found and what the collector's intended purpose is.
"I do feel that it's a morally better way to interact with wild game than hunting," Potter says. "I do have a sense of having done a public service to get the deer off the road and away from the roadside, where they smell and spoil and attract dogs and things. And I'm able to get a tremendous amount of tasty meat in a short amount of time."
Potter only picks up roadkill when it's cold outside, when the fleas and ticks that plague the animals in warmer months have all died, and when the temperature retards spoilage. If it's fresh, he says, it's as safe as if he shot it. (It also raises the same safety concerns as does eating any wild game, as Food Safety News has reported.)
When he comes upon a deer, he'll inspect it to see where it's been hit. If one or both of its sides are undamaged, he employs what hunters call the poacher's cut. With nothing more than a pocketknife, he can take off the back of its hide and quickly cut out the backstraps and shoulder meat, and bone out the rear legs. This allows him to avoid coming into contact with the viscera, which might be damaged and could contaminate any muscle with which it comes in contact. He describes the smell of undamaged, unspoiled venison as "sweet." The process often takes no more than 20 minutes, and when he's finished, he drags the remainder of the carcass deep into the woods on public land.
"I think I've been alert to this sort of thing since I was a kid," he says, adding, "If I'd see an interesting-looking dead snake, I'd wonder what it might be and I would stop and go, 'Wow, look at that.' "
Even if he's not planning to bring the animal to the dinner table, he might just preserve the hide. He's done so with minks, raccoons and beavers. When Potter's two teenagers were toddlers, he stopped to pick up a majestic ring-necked pheasant along the road on the way to their vacation cabin. At first the children were horrified, but after he dressed the animal behind a McDonald's (preserving its plumage), and built a fire when they reached the cabin, they got a lot more interested.
"The kids had never eaten wild game before at that point, and they were skeptical," he says. "I put the pheasant in foil, with carrots and onions and a little bit of garlic, salt and pepper, and in a couple minutes it was ready. They turned into barking seals. They were trying to snap it out of my fingers."
Potter says you can get about 80 percent of the deer's tastiest meat using the poacher's cut. The doe his brother spotted early in the season was the first of two he collected this winter. From the first he harvested about 20 pounds of meat, which he bagged, labeled, dated and stowed in the freezer. He found a yearling a month later that yielded 15 pounds. And that should be enough for the year.
"Over the months we supplement our regular diet with the roadkill," he says. "Working through the Ziploc bags, going by dates, we find that year-round, we always have at least one parcel waiting. Roadkill is totally a treasure hunt — a matter of opportunity and chance. My friends, family and neighbors and I keep our eyes open. You really can't sit out and wait for it. The best thing is, you don't need fancy tools — [just] a pocketknife, once you develop the skill."
Mike Sula is a journalist based in Chicago. He's on Twitter.