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One night I was driving along Belconnen Way past Black Mountain in Canberra, just after midnight. I was being careful - 80 kilometres an hour, right on the speed limit. At this time of night, the kangaroos often come down from the mountain and cross the highway to get to Gossan Hill in Bruce.
When I was learning to drive, my instructor told me that if you see an animal on the road you’re not supposed to swerve. Hit your brakes, yes, but if you swerve, you might run straight off the road.
When I saw the kangaroo, I did swerve. I hit the brakes, I turned the wheel. I saw the roo in the headlights make a snap decision. It turned to retreat, then turned again, then hopped straight towards me. There was a thud as it hit the side of the car - right into the driver’s side door - and then it bounded away into the trees.
When I got home there was a small dent in the side of my car, but no blood. I thought, maybe it was lucky, maybe it’ll be okay. When I next drove that way, a few days later, I slowed down and looked into the trees as I passed, and a few metres into the trees, I thought I saw a dead kangaroo.
I don’t know what a kangaroo thinks when it sees a pair of headlights rushing towards it. There’s nothing in its evolutionary history that can prepare it for the challenge of crossing a highway. I’d panic, too. I’d hop the wrong way and slam right into the car before I even knew I’d done the wrong thing.
Every day, millions of animals are struck and killed by cars, ships, planes and boat propellors. There are no global statistics for roadkill, but in the United States, the annual death toll includes roughly:
2 million deer
1.2 million dogs
5.4 million cats
20 whales struck and killed by ships
100 manatees killed by boat propellors
10,000 birds killed by planes
and roughly 5,000 humans.
At least 365 million vertebrates killed each year by cars in the US alone. Globally, the figure is more like billions.
These deaths first emerged in the early 20th century as automobiles became common. In the 1920s, people were horrified at the spectre of all this bloodshed. Early commentators questioned whether we should continue to drive at all if we couldn’t find a way to mitigate this impact.
That didn't happen. Instead we got used to it. We came to accept wiping out animals on the road as part of the reality of travel.
If you're driving along at high speeds - in any kind of vehicle - you're what scholar Gary Kroll describes as an 'accelerated species'.
A cheetah, by way of reference, goes very fast - up to 100 kilometres an hour, in short sprints of a few hundred metres. But cheetahs have evolved to operate at those high speeds. Humans go much faster than cheetahs - and not just in short bursts, but for thousands of kilometres at a time. And we are not equipped to operate at those speeds.
When you're travelling at 100 kilometres an hour, you're effectively a different species. You're not a primate, you're a missile.
One of the most interesting variants on roadkill is birdstrike, or 'snarge' - the technical term for what’s left over when a bird gets struck by a plane.
Snarge is fascinating because it’s a rare example of animals hitting back. When we hit a deer or a kangaroo with a car, the animals end up dead. When a goose gets sucked into the engine of a passenger aircraft, the goose dies - but so might everyone else.
The famous ‘Miracle on the Hudson River’ occurred when a plane taking off from New York’s LaGuardia airport in 2009 struck a flock of Canada geese. The plane lost power in both engines and had to make a desperate water landing in the river.
On my way to the London Olympic swimming pool one morning, I encountered a teenage boy with a hunting hawk on his wrist, walking up and down the concourse of the Stratford shopping centre. He explained that the Stratford Centre hired him to patrol with the hawk each morning to make sure no pigeons encroached into the shopping mall. But that was his side hustle. His main job, he explained, was at the airport.
It turns out that British airports keep flock sof hunting birds and their handlers on-site to keep the vicinity free of birdlife. If a bird gets near the runway and hits a plane during takeoff or landing, it could cause hundreds of casualties. When humans travel at these extraordinary speeds, we become lethal - but vulnerable, too.
As a society, we haven't developed a very sophisticated etiquette around roadkill. Perhaps at minimum we're expected to put an animal out of its misery if we hit it. In Australia, there's the added twist that the kangaroo or wombat you hit with your car may have a living joey in its pouch. You'll often see roadkill by the road with crosses spraypainted on their body, to indicate that they've been checked for babies.
When I perform You're Safe Til 2024, I ask people in the audience to put their hand up if they've hit an animal while driving. Typically about half the crowd raises their hand (even, surprisingly, in Singapore). Then I ask people to raise their hands if they've ever shot an animal - at most it's one or two.
Killing an animal with a car or shooting it with a gun produce the exact same end result - but morally and legally, we see them as very different things. We don't hold people responsible if they hit an animal with a car. After all, if an animal runs out on the road in front of you when you're going at 100 kilometres an hour, you don't really have a choice in the matter.
And that's what makes roadkill so fascinating. This is a new type of death in the history of the planet. It's not one species killing another for food. It's not one species killing another for fun. This is one species killing another - by accident - because we're going too fast to even see them.
This is part of what it means to be an accelerated species. We are wiping out huge numbers of other species, but for the most part, not because we’re deliberately hunting them. These creatures are dying due to land clearing, habitat destruction, disease spread, introduced species - and on our roads.
When you’re going as fast as we are, it’s not hard to cause damage. What’s hard is seeing what’s coming up before we hit it.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
I’m stoked to announce that Sipat Lawin and I have received a Green Room Award for our play Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? Are You Ready is a action thriller that follows a group of fans on a quest to rescue a kidnapped Filipino pop idol. We received the award for Best Writing, which is lovely - especially since it will be a while before we get to tour that work again.
In other news, tickets are selling fast for Moonshine & Tits’ production of my rom-com 44 Sex Acts In One Week at Belvoir Theatre this September. The Sydney Morning Herald said 'You've probably been waiting all year for something to make you laugh this hard’. Last time, the season sold out before opening, so, get amongst it.
Lastly, in honour of the theme of this month’s newsletter, I feel obliged to share a link to Finnigan and Brother’s Roadkill / Hey Kid 606 split-single from 2014. For this track, we collaborated with Bec Taylor (of Fun Machine, Glitoris and many other bands) and produced a sexy homage to hitting wildlife with cars.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.