I haven’t seen a road sign that says “Animal Crossing” yet because it seems weirdly generic to include all of the animal world in warnings about crossing roads.

Where I grew up in the so-called mountains of Pennsylvania (the Alleghenies) were part of a vast Appalachian Mountain chain. Some parts of it included Thorny Flat on Cheat Mountain and Balk Knob in West Virginia. However, in my part of Pennsylvania, the principal settlements are Altoona, State College, Johnstown and, of course, Shickshinny, Tunkhannock, Susquehanna (River), and Nanticoke. Route 11 runs along the River and is a great source for roadkill. “Sundried woodchuck” is a specialty at some of the roadside diners.

The mountains first belonged to the Native Americans and in a 1671 an expedition by Batts and Fallows found Mehetan Indians of Mountain Cherokee-Iroquois on some rivers. The French maps of that date associated the Indians with the “Cherokee” and Eastern Siouan and traded with them (trinkets for furs?). But they didn’t need road signs.

Back in those days the moose, deer and bear, the occasional turkey, duck, snake or turtle could cross the trails and paths wherever and whenever they wished. However, when roads were established and vehicles started to use them, life for the animals became more precarious.

To protect the deer—in particular—the U.S. Department of Environmental Conservation and the Pennsylvania State Thruway Authority decided to erect signs to warn the deer that it was only at particular places that they could safely cross a road.

The deer, it seems, were slow to learn, especially during November and December (hunting season) and crashes were common and lethal—both for the deer and the vehicles they didn’t see coming.

Like any good government agency, they responded with more signs. Not a simple “Deer Crossing,” but now “Slow Multiple Deer Crossing,” “Deer with Fawn Crossing,” and, just to be sure, “Slow Wild Life Crossing.” The latter sign would account for drunks at late night parties in the mountains as well.

With evolution on their side, some of the deer began to catch on. One old stag, with a broken leg and twisted rack, returned to his herd and reported how he got hit by a pick-up truck and told them: “If you wish to retain four legs and be able to think without a headache, you should watch for yellow signs that have a picture that looks something like us on them. Only at such locations should you cross the road.”

But a lot of deer still were not getting the picture and the road kill was, so to speak, heaping up. Again the government decided to help and they erected high quality 3M reflective aluminum signs. It helped some, but it wasn’t until a particularly bright doe from Blackberry Ridge learned to read that the road kill lessened.

She informed the herd that “An X means that it is a crossing and the picture of a deer means us.” A young deer school was also set up to teach the herd sign language.

In addition, and because so few mountain people can read, signs were put up that would simply show the picture of a deer or moose, with no writing, although some natives caught on to the meaning of “Xing” with three deer images and would slow down to 60 or 70 mph.

A deer crossing memo was then transported across every gorge and forest in Eastern Pennsylvania and before long deer would show up at the crossing, look both ways, then dart across the road. Some were slow and slightly stupid and didn’t make it. They became “road kill” and were eaten by the natives, or gathered by the park rangers and police who patrolled the roads. They would in turn sell the carcasses to a local McDonalds or Burger King chain and out-of -tate customers would eat the demolished deer. The usual formula was “one dead deer mixed with three cows.” Occasionally a dead fox or turkey would be thrown in, although any part of a feather or tail would be a “dead” giveaway.

Native Pennsylvanians of course knew better than to eat at McDonalds. They knew what fresh deer should taste like and a McDonalds “hamburger” with deer meat in it smelled and tasted different. Often it had a trace of road bitumen in it or the telltale smell of oil or gasoline. People from Ohio, New York and Canada were not as concerned and claimed to like the “unique McDonald hamburgers from Eastern Pennsylvania.”

We lived in Australia for a number of years and there were kangaroo and emu road crossing signs. The kangaroos didn’t need them because they simply hopped across the road and the emu could usually outrun any vehicle. If they didn’t, there was always a McDonalds nearby.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), where we also lived, there were no road signs to help the animals. Pigs would commonly be struck by vehicles and chickens never learned to cross the road. Killing a pig in PNG leads to automatic tribal warfare. The offending vehicle is chased, stoned, bombarded with arrows and limps away like a wounded cassowary. If the driver is lucky, it is only the vehicle that suffers damage.

I haven’t been back to Pennsylvania for many years but I understand that the deer population has increased significantly since they learned to read and they only cross where the yellow signs are located. Here in Texas only squirrels attempt to cross roads—and normally only once.

June 2018
Safe in Waco, Texas