Deer meet their maker all too often along the chewed-up shoulders of rural highways and on the nagging top strands of barbed-wire fencing.
When this happens, Jim Kujala is called to pick through the accident scene with a bone-handled hunting knife. Kujala, of Greenacres, is part David Caruso, part Daniel Boone. His mission is simple: Salvage the meat if possible and try to determine the cause of death.
It isn’t exactly “CSI: Chattaroy,” but it sure isn’t rifle deer season. What’s salvageable is donated to Union Gospel Mission. The mission receives the meat though an agreement with the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, of which Kujala is a member. Council members harvest the roadkill with the permission of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It’s too bad when an animal dies because we’ve moved into its habitat,” Kujala said. “What I try to do is make something good come out of it.”
Few animals seem to pay the price for human progress more than deer. Our highways, our fences are calloused enforcers of order. The price for noncompliance couldn’t be higher.
It is midafternoon Wednesday as Kujala drives east on Tallman Road near Chattaroy to finish off an injured doe spotted in a family’s pasture that morning. He has a giant Tupperware chest of tools in the pickup truck bed to get the job done, but all he really needs is the knife on his waist and the bolt-action .22-caliber rifle behind the seat.
Kujala is hurrying because he doesn’t want the animal to suffer unnecessarily, but he isn’t speeding. A man who salvages roadkill several times a month loses his interest in fast driving.
At the moment, Kujala is not sure what injured this deer. The property owner, who reported the animal to state Fish and Wildlife officials, speculated it had been hit on Tallman, but it seems unlikely because Kujala finds the deer a good quarter mile from the road.
The doe is barely visible, bedded on a snowy hillside. Her ears perk up as Kujala’s truck door opens, then shuts, and she stands and staggers as Kujala approaches. Her front legs are fine, but her hind legs splay as she tries to walk, and she lies back down. There’s the crack of a rifle shot, and the doe is dead.
“I feel bad for them when they’re alive, but after that, they’re just meat,” Kujala said, grabbing the doe by the legs and pulling it into the back of the pickup.
He studies the animal for the telltale marks of a car collision – a damaged hide, compound fractures or worse. None of those marks is present. Kujala guesses the animal got tangled in a fence and injured itself. He estimates the doe was about a year old.
The truth comes during an autopsy of sorts back in town where Kujala dresses the animal in a North Side lot along the Hillyard railroad tracks. Blood is draining from the doe’s midsection as Kujala runs a sharp knife up the animal’s underbelly to its ribcage – but there should be none. He gently reaches a gloved hand inside the animal and removes its entrails. There’s evidence the doe was pregnant.
“Looks like she was more than a year old,” Kujala said. Expecting mothers generally are. He revises his earlier assessment of the animal’s age, then moves on to skinning the animal. Now it is clear the right side of the doe’s pelvis is broken and its left hip is dislocated, injuries that suggest the animal indeed was entangled in a fence.
“Can you imagine fighting that hard to break loose?” Kujala asks. But he doesn’t dwell on the details. There’s no point. The sun is going down and the time, as Kujala puts it, “to make something good come out of this” is slipping away.
The hide goes into a plastic sack and the carcass, bundled in a tarp, is taken to the drop-off door behind the Union Gospel Mission, where two men load it on a cart and roll it into a freezer.