`Deer Lady' finds a lively career in N.J. roadkill

Woman collects carrion from public roads, draws stares from other drivers

August 04, 2002|By Andrew Jacobs | Andrew Jacobs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Kelly McCleery adores all sorts of animals. She owns a very demanding potbellied pig, seven horses and she has been known to adopt orphaned baby raccoons. But when it comes to making a living, McCleery prefers to lean on those four-footed friends in the early stages of rigor mortis.

"I'd rather work with dead ones," she said recently on the way to her fifth road-kill call of the day. "They don't give you no trouble."

That, of course, depends on your constitution. With the mercury in the upper 90s, the sorry cargo in the back of McCleery's GMC dump truck was emitting an unspeakable odor. The visuals were grisly.

Most people here simply know her as "the Deer Lady." It is a nickname delivered with a mix of wonderment and disgust.

There are 6 million registered vehicles and 10,700 miles of road in New Jersey, the nation's most densely populated state. Add to the equation 200,000 white-tailed deer. Subtract the 50,000 acres of meadows and forest that are bulldozed each year for development and you'll have a sense of the task that awaits McCleery and her daughters each morning.

2,500 pickups

As the state deer disposal officer for seven South Jersey counties, McCleery is responsible for collecting cloven-hoof carrion from all public roads within 24 hours of when fatalities are reported. Last year, the family dispatched 2,500 battered bucks, does and fawns to a local dump.

Every year, McCleery and the state's two other roadkill contractors get a little busier. In 1995, 10,000 deer-car collisions were reported across the state. Last year, that number was 20,300, according to the State Department of Transportation. (Because the yearly contracts are a flat-fee arrangement, the increasing body count does not mean more money.)

A stocky, powerfully built woman with a mordant sense of humor, McCleery, 38, is unapologetic about her chosen occupation. She loves the open-road adventure, the flexible hours and the sense that she's providing a necessary public service to the squeamish. "Besides," she said, "I have the best job security in the world. My job is so nasty, no one wants it."

Her husband, Jim, is also in the animal control business but mostly deals with the live ones, catching rabid opossums, runaway dogs and bats in suburban attics. From time to time, Jim McCleery will pick up the odd deer during his meanderings just to make it easier on his wife, who is sometimes on the road for 12 hours straight, seven days a week.

`Turkey Buzzard'

Fourteen-year-old Shirley, the youngest of McCleery's daughters, occasionally endures the taunts of her classmates but loves the work as much as her mother. One day she, too, hopes to become South Jersey's deer lady. "Everyone needs a job and this is what my mom does," she said proudly.

Shirley is also known as "Turkey Buzzard" because of her talent for spotting a carcass before anyone else. Sometimes after a pickup, the birds will trail the truck for a few miles. "Can't blame 'em," McCleery said with a cackle. "I'm meals on wheels."

On this trip, Shirley and her mother have already fetched a doe-fawn pairing, several bucks and another creature that, due to its final resting place at the center of a busy road, has been rendered unrecognizable.

"Ew, it's so crispy," Shirley said, as the truck pulled up to a specimen that nature had reduced to a mound of bones and matted hair. It made quick work for Shirley, who lobbed the dessicated remains into the truck with one hand.

Most jobs, however, require the full strength of two. Mother and daughter will snap on their yellow rubber gloves, grab a set of legs, and swing their quarry three times, cheerily counting aloud.

When she first started out three years ago, McCleery didn't have enough money for a truck so she was forced to rely on her cargo van.

`Everyone hates me'

During the warmer months, the stench would force McCleery and her daughters to ride with their heads poking out the windows. Later, she bought a pickup truck, but that provoked outrage among passers-by who imagined her a serial hunter or a deranged scavenger. "People would scream, `Murderer!'" she recalled. "Everyone hates me, until I'm in front of their house cleaning up a mess."

Her new dump truck is a godsend. It makes disposal a breeze and the mechanized winch helps McCleery load the occasional cow or horse, part of a free-lance carcass-removal service she provides to local farmers. But while the truck largely conceals the carnage it does little to contain the smell. "When I stop at a gas station or red light, people can be so mean," she said.

Early summer can be especially hectic, thanks to the slow-moving fawns, born in late May and early June, that are just getting their sea legs. The fall rutting season, when the males are on the prowl, is even busier.

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