It’s a dirty job, but someone in Oldham has to do it

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By Laura Hagan

I started my Monday morning watching two men pluck animal carcasses from the side of the road. 

It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. In this case, that somebody is a crew from the local state highway maintenance division. 

I rode with Jonathan Donner and Hardy Little as they retrieved and disposed of animal carcasses along state roads in Oldham County. Monday’s mission included finding two deer carcasses reported to the department and taking the carcasses for compost in Middletown.

Donner and Little aren’t always the ones with this assignment, they said. Everyone who works for the state highway maintenance division has a turn collecting carcasses.

About three times a week, two-man crews go pick up and dispose of the animals, usually two to four a day.

It’s usually deer, Donner said, but they’ve picked up raccoons, dogs, opossums, skunks and on two occasions, horses. Smaller animals are removed using a shovel and a trash bag. The horse required a loader. 

Armed with the shovel, rubber gloves and a truck with a lift, off we went early Monday to find the deer.

Usually at that hour, I’m checking my e-mail and preparing for the day. 

Without weekend pickups, the deer could have arrived along the road as recently as overnight or sat there since Friday. 

In the summer heat, they say, it’s a little bit worse. The longer a carcass sits in the heat, the more time it has to rot and the more time other animals and maggots – ick – have time to find it. 

During the summer, crews pick up more young deer, and as the weather gets colder, they’ll start seeing more deer along the route. 

The crews don’t pick up animals during the weekend or after hours unless the carcass is in the middle of the road or interstate. And for a while, they didn’t have the lift on the truck so they’d have to hoist the animal into the back of the truck, making it a lot messier than it was when I was along for the ride. They said the lift makes things quicker and safer as well.

Donner, who’s worked with state highway maintenance for 10 years, said before the lift was added to the truck, he’d bring a change of clothes to work because the job was a lot messier. 

It’s still a dirty job, but less messy when they just have to drag the carcasses instead of pick them up.

The men say the smell is the worst, of course, and it’s usually accompanied by blood and a fair amount of maggots. 

Excuse me here while I gag.

Little, who’s picked up about 500 deer in his career, said the bigger the animal, the worse.

Each worker has his or her preference regarding what type of carcass is easiest to remove. 

Little joined the crew three years ago. During his first day on the job, the crew picked up a deer carcass without a head. It is something that still makes the crew queasy, he said. 

Headless deer are somewhat common during the clean-up process. Drivers sometimes stop when they spot a deer carcass and take the head and/or antlers to mount. 

The men aren’t sure how it’s done on the side of the road. But they encounter a lot of carcasses missing a head. 

Feel free to skip ahead a paragraph of two, it gets gross again. 

Little said as they picked up one headless deer carcass, maggots came pouring out. The crew members call the maggots “rice.” 

I may never eat rice again. 

The process went quickly on Monday. The crew located both deer on Ky. 53 between U.S. 42 and downtown La Grange. 

One of the deer carcasses looked like it’d been there a long time. It was full of maggots and looked like other animals had gotten to it. 

Little said they usually find deer in the same places – Donner said cars collide with deer at the same point on Ky. 53 about once a week. 

“If they’re hit by a car, it’s usually at the right-of-way,” Little said.

I got out of the car both times, though Donner said I didn’t have to. 

“I’m not scared,” I said.

However, if they’d asked me to help move it, I don’t know if I could have. I have weak arms and probably wouldn’t have been much help. Not to mention if I saw another maggot I would’ve gagged and dropped the thing.

The second deer was definitely more gross. My allergies have given me a stuffy nose so I don’t think I got the full effect, but it reeked. 

When faced with a rotting an animal carcass, both men said the best thing to do is hold your breath. 

I ask if they’ve ever tried nose plugs.

“We’re not going swimming,” Donner replied.

Donner and Little are tough – they’ll tell you that, too. They’ve seen people with weaker stomachs try to do the job, and get sick at the sight and smell. Neither of them have gotten sick, they say, but almost.

After the carcasses are loaded they’re taken to another department in Middletown for compost. 

Carcasses are covered with wood chips and start to decompose. Sometimes the crew uses an incinerator in another part of Louisville, but that’s only if they’re out of wood chips. Incinerating costs more. 

Then it’s back to Oldham County where they’ll scrub down the back of the truck.

It’s a dirty job, that’s for sure, and it’s a part of their job they’re not particularly fond of, but it has to be done. 

“It takes a special kind of people to do this,” Little said. “We just smile, and wave. We’re serving the public.”


Do you have a dirty job or know of one Laura should write about? Send your ideas to lhagan@oldhamera.com. Check back in upcoming issues of The Oldham Era to read more about the dirtiest jobs in Oldham County.