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Road-kill Runners

road kill
Robert Scheer

A day in the life of a freeway scooper-upper

By Cecily Barnes

I'm sitting in the cab of a Caltrans truck, smashed between two orange-suited workers. The smell of stale smoke and lunch wafts through the vehicle, where I'm riding along for a 1032 pickup, code for a "dead animal sweep," a.k.a. the removal of road kill.

"It can get pretty gross," Caltrans supervisor Herman Ramirez confirms. "Sometimes they're 1 inch thick and 500 feet long."

The guys in my truck remember what it was like in the beginning. Yes, they were squeamish, but now they hardly notice. New workers, they chuckle, sometimes vomit.

"I've gagged," the driver, Ray Rivas, confesses, "but I've never actually thrown up."

My other seatmate, Larry Strouse, pulls a small brown vial from his pocket and shares his secret for handling 1032s.

"I carry a little bit of cologne with me and put it onto the dust mask," he says. "You also have to make sure you're downwind."

Each weekday in the car-crowded South Bay, Caltrans workers respond to dozens of 1032 calls as part of their job, which also includes road and asphalt repair, mowing, storm patrol and keeping the roads clean. Depending upon the season, Caltrans will pick up as many as 30 dead animals a day. They know when certain animals are in mating season, when water supplies are down, when certain fruits are ripe. Possibly, they know too much

"It's seasonal," Ramirez explains. "Right now, for example, the deer are moving a lot, and there are some evenings when cats are doing a lot of roaming around. Sometimes, you're very easily picking up 10 to 15 animals in one shift."

When larger animals such as a cow or deer obstruct the roadway, the California Highway Patrol is called in to pick up the carcass. The CHP also assists Caltrans by blocking the road for pickups from the deadly fast lane.

On this trip along Highway 101, however, we're heading to pick up one medium-sized dog.

At my request, the workers share the stories of their most gruesome 1032s, with Rivas and Strouse trying to one-up each other in gore.

At the Story Road exit, we spot the unmangled body of the dog, who appears to be sleeping peacefully. Strouse and Rivas grab a box of latex gloves from the dashboard and a kitchen trash bag from the truck bed.

I walk toward the animal, not really wanting to see its face but unable to stifle my curiosity.

"You want to do it?" Rivas asks me.

I shake my head--absolutely not.

As if they were wrapping up a sandwich, the two men slide the pet into a bag and place its body in the back of the truck.

"This one's not so bad," Strouse tells me, flipping his latex glove inside out and off his hand. "A lot of times they're all bloody."

Wrapped in the white trash bag, the animal now looks like another piece of litter retrieved from the freeway. Drivers, however, complain more often about animals than trash.

"We don't want to see any dead animals lay out there too long because it becomes a health hazard," supervisor Ramirez explains. "It's just better for the public not to see a splattered animal, especially a domestic one."

I climb back into the truck, and once we're all buckled in, we pull off the shoulder. Last stop is the San Jose Tallow Company.

The rusty two-story building looks like something out of Nightmare on Elm Street. Bloody carcasses swing from metal hooks on their way to the grinder while chunks of flesh shoot from a green funnel into a truck bed. Rusty metal machines litter the grounds, waiting to squeeze tallow out of the cooked meat.

Strouse and Rivas carry the dog to a wet spot on the cement, and someone on the second level sends down a metal hook. The dog is hooked and hoisted up.

According to San Jose Tallow Company president Sylvan Rosenzweig, small and domestic animals are cremated in an incinerator, while all the rest--deer, cows, horses--are ground up, boiled and wrung dry.

"After the meat is ground, we cook it in circular cookers," Rosenzweig says. "Then it goes through an expeller, 28,000 pounds of pressure. We just wring it out, and the wet stuff is tallow. It's worth more than the meat and bone."

He says dog food companies buy the wrung-dry meat, while the more valuable wet stuff is snatched up by cosmetic and soap companies.

"You wash your face in it," he laughs.

I laugh too--at the irony of the origins of the pristine bars of white soap in my shower and in the homes of millions.

Back at the truck, Strouse and Rivas notice that I've placed my hand over my face to block the stench. They tell me I should come in the middle of summer, when it's really bad, when the meat "cooks" in the sun. I attempt to smile beneath my hand, but cannot do it.

Amused by my nausea, or perhaps hoping to distract me, Rivas tells the most horrific story of all, about how one roadkill turned out to be a middle-aged man who had been hit by an 18-wheeler. The body, he assures me, went to the morgue. We drive away and there is a long silence. Clearly, the one-upping stops here.

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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