Yesterday I was driving my truck down a two-lane highway in southern California when a squirrel ran out on the road in front of me. I did my best to avoid him/her, but maybe I should’ve zigged when I zagged and I hit them directly. I don’t remember if I cursed, but I definitely gasped. I was very upset. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that I had hit an animal bigger than an insect while driving. I pulled over and jogged back to check their condition.
The body was laying on the pavement with some bloody internal matter protruding from a wound on the left shoulder. I picked the body up by the tail and jogged back to my vehicle where I set it down on the ground. There was no movement. The eyes were wide open but empty of life. The body was warm but nothing stirred: no beating heart, no breathing lungs. Definitely dead. Must have been instantaneous, or virtually so, which relieved me slightly. Following an unpreconceived urge, I dug out a paper grocery bag, carefully set the squirrel inside it, folded the top of the bag closed, and stowed it in the back of my truck.
I was hanging out in the area with a friend who was passing through in her own vehicle. She had been behind me, had seen what had happened, and was pulled over up ahead. She gave me a compassionate frown as I drove slowly past her. She knew I was heartbroken about the event.
A few minutes later we arrived at the spot where we planned to camp for the night and no one else was there. It’s at an undisclosed location in the desert with beautiful Tamarisk trees that provide welcome shade. I am not disclosing it here because it’s not well-known and I would like it to stay that way, if for no other reason that some people like to cut down Tamarisk trees under the banner of “invasive” species. (For more on that, and how Tamarisk trees aren’t the villains they’re made out to be, check out this article we wrote: Shooting the messengers: How plants are unfairly blamed for wasteful human water practices in the U.S. West)
Having killed the squirrel needlessly and so brutally, I felt obligated to make use of it somehow. Some people might call this “honoring” the animal. I won’t turn away that word, but I wouldn’t use it myself. I feel like that’s bigger than I know how to do.
I am not 100% vegetarian or vegan because I am not 100% anything, but I have rarely eaten meat the last few years. I have become increasingly sickened by the farming of animals for food, whether it’s for their flesh or their milk. I find the conventional beef/pork/chicken/etc. industries to be horrific. While hiking and camping on public land, I have seen how much ecological damage is caused by “free range” cattle — and how many wild animals are killed in their interest — so I am no more approving of that program.
I don’t have any illusions that my personal lifestyle choices will make any difference at all in the world — I know they won’t — but I simply don’t want food that was produced that way to go into my body. Call it an “energetic” concern, if you’d like. I can’t see how it doesn’t make a difference to eat food produced with so much suffering. I understand how vegetable farming also takes a toll on the environment and undomesticated creatures, and I mourn this too. My dietary choices are only a starting point, not a satisfactory destination.
But this poor squirrel. This was on me. A beautiful, joyful, free creature struck down for no reason.
I had even been going 15mph below the speed limit because the road already featured many obstacles, namely a large amount of White-Lined Sphinx Moth caterpillars (Hyles lineata) crossing the pavement. On every mile of highway, there were literally hundreds of them, inching across the hot surface. Most were to one side or the other of where my truck’s wheels were driving, but not all, so I was taking it slowly and moving slightly from side to side as I needed to.
As if that wasn’t enough, there were also areas where many Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) were also crossing. This year has seen a higher-than-usual migration. For each mile, there were also hundreds of butterflies, though fewer than the caterpillars and perhaps a little easier to avoid.
Even so, with paying special attention, this particular squirrel caught me by surprise. I was very sad about it.
My friend and I inspected the poor mammal’s body. We quickly figured out that the squirrel was female. We also ascertained that she was struck but not run over. I stated that my intention was to preserve her pelt and cook the meat. This was what I felt I must do, at minimum, somehow. Were these acts of penance? If so, only in a personal way. I didn’t feel like I was following or setting any rules, and if I find myself in this situation again, I might act differently. No, this is just what I felt compelled to do in this situation.
After gathering up some supplies — knife, latex gloves, newspaper, water, bowl, hand sanitizer — I began.
Following my friend’s directions, I carefully cut the squirrel’s skin, from head to tail (nearly), starting under the chin. The point here was to separate the skin from the “fascia,” which is a semi-translucent layer of thin material enclosing the animal’s muscles and innards. Even though this was my first try, I did it well, and didn’t pierce the fascia.
After that initial slit, I firmly but gently pulled the skin away from the fascia, working from belly toward back. I needed to cut additional slits to pull it away from the legs. I also needed to be careful of fecal matter; this meant avoiding the anus and not squeezing the body. At one point, my knife did get some shit on it, so we washed and disinfected it before I moved on.
I was focused carefully on the task at hand. I wanted the pelt to come off well and the meat not to get spoiled. It was already a waste that I killed her, now I wanted to not waste what was in front of me.
My friend reminded me that there was no real waste in this situation. Anything we didn’t use would be consumed by other creatures, be they insects, animals or birds. The squirrel would be recycled into the community one way or another. I understood this, but felt like I had to take some responsibility somehow.
I was not grossed by the process at all. Not by pulling the furry skin off the body, not by scooping out the guts, not by cutting off the meaty parts (which were really just the legs).
Not being at all queasy surprised me a little. I love squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and other cute furry animals. But this one was gone. She had died on the road. Whatever I loved in her was departed. What was left was mere material. But not material that she had given up willingly, as far as I knew. So I just tried to do my best.
Slideshow of prepping and cooking the squirrel (including some gory shots):
The poor dead squirrel
Pulling the skin back from the fascia
The squirrel's skin
The skinned squirrel
The squirrel's guts
The squirrel's legs
The legs in the pan
Browning the legs
Veggies added to squirrel meat
The squirrel hide salted for preservation for later processing
My friend inspected the liver and said it was a good color. She said this was one way of checking if the animal was healthy. We were in an area without any farming and its attendant poisons, so that was good. No one was spraying the plants the squirrel had eaten.
We decided to prepare three of the legs and discard the one that had been injured. We washed them well in water. I set up the camping stove and heated olive oil in a cast iron skillet. I browned the three legs on both sides and then steamed them under cover to make sure they were cooked all the way through. We added carrots (from a friend’s garden), chicory and a couple bulbs from the Desert Lily (Hesperocallis undulata), which is native to the area, and which my friend wildcrafted while I was chopping the other veggies. (We boiled the bulb before sauteeing it.)
I didn’t have much of an appetite but I took a bite of squirrel meat, the first time I’ve ever tried it. Yeah, it did actually taste a little like chicken, like the dark meat. It was rather chewy, but I might have overcooked it. My friend also said you can “cure” wild meat to make it more tender by cooling it down on ice right away and waiting like a day.
I ended up having just three bites of squirrel but my friend ate more. I felt immediately nauseous, though only mildly so.
The next morning, I salted the hide at my friend’s instructions. Over the next couple days I will dry it out in the sun. This is a way of preserving it until there’s a chance to process it into a supple material to work into a project.
I also kept one of the squirrel’s paws because she had five fingers, like me. Having this token around will be a reminder that the squirrel and I are not very different at all. Sometimes I wonder if the only difference between humans and animals is that we think there’s a difference.
I am still sorry that I killed the squirrel. That hasn’t changed. But the attempt to follow what felt like a personal obligation to address the act was a meaningful exercise and I am glad I took the opportunity to pursue it.