It can be, but it can also be the most ethical possible source of some of the best meat you'll ever eat... for free. While you're at it, you may want to grab a skin or fur too.
The catch? You have to learn about diseases in your area and watch for them, and it's often (but not always) illegal.
So, we've got 3 real issues. 1) how do you avoid icky meat? 2) how do you avoid getting sick? 3) how do you make it legal?
WAIT WAIT! Don't leave yet. Remember, this animal is already dead. You don't have to tackle an *entire* animal (like the photo below). The animal is going to sit there anyway. You can just take what you think you can deal with, and use. A foreleg, for example, is managable and very easy to remove.
DisclaimerBefore I continue let me say that I'm not a doctor, a butcher, or a game processor. I have no credentials in this area whatsoever except having studied a bit and eaten some meat. Like basically everything we talk about in this blog understand the risks and weigh them yourself. Do your research and due diligence, and decide what risks you are okay with.
Avoiding icky meatThere's some basic rules. First, there's bad meat and there's icky meat. I've heard of people eating some pretty scary stuff, green, full of maggots, etc. Raw meat tends to grow things that die easily when cooked. So, don't worry if it's not icky it's almost certainly edible. But... that said, EEEEWwwwww!... The ick factor matters to most of us (myself included). So, how do you tell how "old" it is?
It's not actually age that matters. Meat that's properly stored can be good for a long time. If you were to store meat, you'd do it in the cold. So what indicators can you use to tell if it's turning
- Rigormortis. Contrary to popular belief rigormortis kicks in a little while after something dies, and goes away in only a few hours. It goes at the same rate as the meat goes bad, so it's a great signal to use. Rigormortis is usually a sign that the animal is still well within edible ranges. So, if an animal is soft it's either newly dead, or has been dead a while.
- Eyes. Eyes are initially clear, then they cloud over, then clear again, then they are eaten by birds.
- Temperature. Keep the weather in mind of course, sun, material the animal is sitting on. But temperature can be useful if your other indicators are saying it might be recent.
- Fur. Think about the weather. Does the fur all still look absolutely perfect, or does it look just a little dirty. A good healthy wild animal will look emaculate prior to death. So if it's not it's either gotten mussed since then, or the animal wasn't healthy. Either way you might not want to eat it. Note that fur falling out indicates a pretty old kill... likely older than you want to deal with.
- Bloating. This actually doesn't work at all! Deer for example seem to bloat pretty randomly, it's generally slower in cold weather and faster in hot, but sometimes it can be days before they bloat, and sometimes they bloat within minutes of death. Surprisingly, it's not an indicator of much but the possibility of the stomach exploding on you (yeah... eww). If you don't like that idea, just stay away from highly bloated animals - or maybe just take the backstrap or a foreleg.
- Animal damage. Holes poked in the side, eyes plucked out, maggots. Keep in mind that animal damage is likely to introduce parasites as well.
- Circumstances. Given that this is here, this animals behavior, etc. When did it likely die? For example racoons are diurnal. If you find it midmorning it was probably hit that morning, or the previous evening. Use the other signs to tell which.
Avoiding getting sickThese rules are really the same as for hunting.
- Know your area and game. That's the most important point. Research the game you are likely to run into beforehand, and figure out what diseases run in your area. Chronic wasting? Trichinosis? Find out what the signs and relative danger of those diseases. Using that, figure out what game you are willing to take. Maybe it's not worth the risk for some species in your area, or maybe it's easy to identify a healthy vs. a sick individual so a disease isn't a big issue.
- Next, I simply don't eat unhealthy animals. When we find roadkill, if it doesn't look like that animal was in the pinnacle of health prior to death, we don't eat it. As we gut it we also look at the organs like the liver, for general health.
- Lastly, just in case, I use gloves. We always carry nitrile gloves with us in the truck, both for medical and animal kill use. There are a lot of blood-born pathogens, and other parasites, that are nullified by cooking. Given that, basic bodily fluid isolation practices seem worthwhile.
Avoiding breaking the lawThis is where it gets tricky. To be clear as I live in the U.S. that's what I'm writing about here.
Last summer for example Jess (and myself while I was visiting) were covered by her instructor's Washington roadkill license she got for teaching. In some places if you hit an animal and you call the local cops they'll check it out and often let you take it. In other places they'll let you take things you find as well if they come look at it first. In a few places you can even get a license to take roadkill. But... in some places there is no way to take roadkill legally no matter what.
Check your local laws and see if you can figure out something. If you choose to ignore legality that's your own business, and not endorsed here.
ConclusionConsider the risks, educate yourself and make up your own mind.
Regardless it's hard to argue with the ethicality of eating something that has already died, and where your use is highly unlikely to influence the deaths of other animals. To me, using an animal that has died anyway is a way of respecting that animals life. The more I can use, the more I respect it. At the same time though, recognize that what you leave is not "wasted". It will be used by birds, mammals, and insects and plants, to continue and enrich their lives.
As a last note, let me pass on a little tradition. The folks who taught me how to do this like to share windfalls. So, once you are comfortable I would encourage you to share this meat (with appropriate risk disclosure) with other's. It's hard to use an entire deer for example, and the help in butchering is nice as well. If all goes well maybe you'll share more than this one animal.