October 3, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)

Road Kill

Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.

Vernon Saunders Law

One evening around dusk I was driving along California State Highway 101 on my way home. To the right of the highway, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a very large, heavily antlered, buck standing next to the road. I thought about what would have happened if it had crossed the highway in front of me and I had hit it.

On reflection, it occurred to me that that would not have happened. That buck didn't get that big by being stupid, and it would be stupid to step in front of a vehicle traveling at 55 mph. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I have never seen a dead large deer along the side of the highway. I have seen many dead deer and they were all either fawns or very young adult deer. That big buck that I saw was just waiting for me to pass, at which time, it would walk across the road safely. It was doing what any intelligent animal would do.

At the south end of Laytonville on highway 101 is a sign that says "Elk Crossing." In the more than 20 years that I have traveled that road, I have never seen an elk. Recently, I saw a young dead elk by the side of the road. Mature elk are too wise to challenge automobiles.

The automobile is just one of many things that select animals for intelligence and experience. A long time ago, I heard Dr. A. Starker Leopold speak on the subject of deer. He told how he and his students had been studying a particular deer herd for some time. They knew that a certain area contained a large number of deer, including a number of big bucks. When the first shot of hunting season went off, the deer disappeared. When they checked the hunters coming out of the area, they found that they had all killed young deer. Not a single large buck was shot; no trophies in that hunt. As soon as the hunting season was over, the big deer were back in their regular stomping grounds. Older, experienced deer know how to avoid hunters. I once saw a hunter on a hilltop, while just below him a deer was walking in the brush below him, out of sight of the hunter. The deer knew where the hunter was, but the hunter was oblivious of the deer.

It is the young inexperienced animals, of all mammalian species that get killed, while those that have the intelligence, experience, and good luck to avoid an early death live to old age, when they too die.

My cat Lady is pretty savvy about the wild since she has spent every night since her adolescence in the wild. When we take a walk and a car approaches, she jumps into the woods. No car is going to hit her without hitting a big tree first. Those dead cats that you see on the road are probably house cats that have never learned to navigate either city or country streets.

I don't have any statistics to back it up, but I do know that insurance rates for young, relatively inexperienced, drivers are much higher than they are for older drivers. Many years ago I was taking flying lessons. I wanted to increase my life insurance so I called my insurance agent. He told me that they would not insure someone taking flying lessons and that the double indemnity provision on my existing policy, in case of accidental death, was void if I was sitting in the pilot's seat during the learning period. After a pilot has had a good deal of experience, he can get life insurance at the ordinary rate.

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