Raw

removing the hide

This morning I helped our neighbors, Troy and Paula Scott, haul some cow and roadkilled deer carcasses to two locations on the mountain for a golden eagle camera trap, part of an ongoing project headed up by ornithologists Todd Katzner and Trish Miller to track the movement patterns of eastern golden eagles. Paula is the point-person for the project here in Plummer’s Hollow since she has the most expertise with trail cams, as my mom detailed in a recent column. There are various other locations around the state, but I believe ours may be the only one to include cow as well as deer carcasses.

My job was to drive the tractor with the 1000-pound cow in the front loader. It was a bit chilly, but that was good because it meant the ground was frozen and our tires didn’t dig troughs in the marshy part of the field on the way up. We planted my cow at the Far Field and the three smaller carcasses at the top of First Field, both in spots that Trish had earlier scouted out: open yet brushy, and near enough to the wood’s edge that the big raptors will have some place to land and survey the situation before dropping down to feed. Both spots are on top of the ridge, which is used as a migration corridor in late fall and early spring, and also for more local movements by golden eagles that don’t go any farther south than Pennsylvania.

First Field carcasses

Of course, eagles aren’t the only things that will come in to feed on the carcasses, so everything had to be staked down. This only added to the gruesomeness of the scene. Since we don’t have cougars, wolves or other large carnivores here, the birds would need help getting to the meat. Fortunately, Troy and Paula are expert butchers.

The deer were both pretty rank-smelling, despite the cold, but their green meat and maggots weren’t nearly as disturbing as what came out of the two cows. When Troy stuck his knife into the back of the calf carcass to make the first incision in the hide, milk poured out and formed a sizable puddle on the ground. This was a veal calf. It was literally full to bursting with the milk it had been force-fed before it cheated its scheduled death and managed to die a few weeks early.

ruptured gut

The cow was six years old, and Troy thought it might’ve died giving birth. His son had picked it up a couple days before from a farmer in the southern part of the county. The flayed carcass was not without aesthetic appeal, and I even filmed part of the skinning for possible later use in a videopoem (something about love, perhaps?).

But then Troy sliced open the body cavity, and again the animal was overflowing — this time with semi-digested silage (the yellowish green substance in the above photo). Paula reminded us that of course cows do have four stomachs, so probably Troy had just sliced one or more stomach linings without realizing it, but still, it was hard to escape the impression that the cow, like the calf, had been stuffed as if for a roast while still alive. It was a sobering glimpse into the realities of modern industrial farming. Later, at the lunch table, when I told my parents about it, Mom observed that such odd and at times unpleasant jobs make up at least 90% of most scientific studies. This was science in the raw.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

8 Comments


  1. Wow. Some good perspectives here. I almost wrote ‘food for thought’ but…given the descriptions…only if I’m a turkey vulture or a golden eagle.

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  2. Wow that’s one hell of a bird feeder and a fascinating post. Will you be sharing any pictures/updates of the customers who show up?

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    1. Yeah, either here or at the Plummer’s Hollow site (in which case I’ll post the link here). I’m sure Paula’s cameras will capture some good wildlife interactions, even if eagles don’t come in. And if they do, then the biologists will come up and deploy net cannons, apparently.

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  3. I love that last picture. Composition, colours. The subject, although unpleasant, is beautiful.

    Here’s hoping you get an eagle – the picture of the talons of the one trapped in 2008 is one of my all-time favourites.

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    1. Thanks — I’m glad you liked it. It’s actually a bit of a long shot that we’d get an eagle before March, but OTOH the carcasses will probably still have some meat on them by then…

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  4. This riveting post makes me feel a bit of a sissy going out to load the winter bird-feeders with nuts, fruits and seeds. Perhaps our buzzards and red kites might be persuaded to drop into the garden if I staked out the odd dead cow!

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    1. Well, and probably some smaller birds, too. Even our chickadees (a species of tit) will come in to feed on a yummy carcass. I’m guessing you might have a hard time talking Peter into it, though.

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