Road kill: It's what's for dinner.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 2 2011 3:54 AM

Does This Rabbit Taste Like Tires?

Road kill: It's what's for dinner.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

It really was a good-looking rabbit. Shiny coat, sleek body, glassy eyes—only its mangled back leg hinted at its violent cause of death. My husband Peter and I had come across this rabbit on a trip to a bird sanctuary in Gridley, Calif. It was lying in the middle of a narrow country road, stretched stiffly across the pavement; Peter swerved slightly to avoid its body.

"That was a pretty rabbit," he said, guiding the car back into the correct lane.

I agreed.  We continued down the road in silence. Then, several hundred meters later, Peter spoke again.

"Should we go back and pick it up?"

He was suggesting that we take the rabbit home and eat it. Yes, I'm aware that this sounds crazy. And no, I'm not a back-to-the-land hippie: I grew up in Manhattan, where eating something off the street will likely result in an untimely death. But we were living in Oakland, Calif., dangerously close to Berkeley—the epicenter of the organic food movement, where the words local and sustainable are prized more than Michelin stars.  This rabbit was wild, grass-fed, and presumably antibiotic- and artificial hormone-free. Except for the car that had hit it, no food miles had been accrued delivering it to us. So why not bring it home for dinner?

"I don't know," I said hesitantly, aware that now that the idea had been planted in our minds, we were going to have to do it. "Leaving it there does seem like a waste."

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Peter made a U-turn. When we reached the rabbit, still lying sprawled across the pavement, I refused to get out of the car. Instead, I watched as Peter crouched down to examine the bunny and, with me telling him to only pick it up if it "seemed fresh," returned holding its stiff body in his hands.

"Only its back leg is messed up," he said as I stared into the rabbit's vacant eyes.

"Is it warm?"

"Sort of," he said, side-stepping the question. "Look at how nice its fur is. I could make a pouch."  

Peter and I have different recollections of who was responsible for what happened next. But the end result was indisputable:  By the time we pulled away, the rabbit was in our trunk, its plastic-bagged corpse right next to my yoga mat.

While official statistics are difficult to come by, a 2008 report by the Federal Highway Administration estimated that there are between 1 million and 2 million collisions between vehicles and large animals in the United States each year (rabbits presumably excluded). Large animals are usually called in to the authorities and hauled away, but small game is often not reported and therefore stays where it lands, pummeled by passing traffic until it blends into the pavement. Occasionally, a dead animal will be tossed to the side of the road, where it's picked on by birds and insects until only the bones remain. Only rarely does a human treat it as food—mostly because it's considered gross, but also because doing so is often illegal: Kirsten Macintyre, communications manager at the California Department of Fish and Game, later told me that under California law, "a car is not a legal method of take." (She then asked if I had heard the story about a guy in Pennsylvania who was arrested for trying to resuscitate a possum on the side of a road. The department is not without a sense of humor.)

Legality, however, was the last thing in our minds as we headed back toward Oakland. We had a much more pressing problem: what to do with the body. Neither of us had any idea how to skin or gut a rabbit, let alone determine whether its meat was safe to eat.

After stopping at a gas station to buy a bag of ice, I spent the next hour doing rabbit-related Google searches on Peter's BlackBerry. Among the things I learned: There are a lot of road-kill jokes on the Internet, none of which are useful when you are driving 60 miles an hour toward home with a mangled rabbit in your trunk. And if you do pick up a dead rabbit, you need to watch out for tularemia. Sometimes known as rabbit fever, it's a bacterial infection—catchable by inhalation—that's so toxic that it's actually been developed as a biological weapon.

This was not comforting. I needed to speak to an expert about whether our rabbit might kill us. Luckily, just as living in the Bay Area made it more likely for me to contemplate picking up the rabbit to begin with, it also meant that I actually knew people who might have an opinion on such things. I placed some calls and soon was on the phone with a friend of mine who raises rabbits for meat and tans their skins in an abandoned lot next to her apartment.

"The most important thing is to bleed it," she said, assuring me that our rabbit's healthy appearance made it unlikely that it carried tularemia.

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