By Juliana Di Leonardo
As heavy rain pounded the pavement on Long Island Saturday night, I came upon the body of what appeared to be a pregnant, young mother in the middle of the road. Battered and bloody, she was the victim of a hit-and-run. I swerved but almost didn’t stop. Like whoever hit her, I panicked, but my conscience didn’t allow me to keep going. I pulled onto the shoulder and approached her lifeless body. To my surprise and horror, a week-old infant, still breathing, lay inches from her mother’s face. Mom was dead, but somehow, this baby survived the crash unscathed. As I observed the gentle rise and fall of her lungs, her little hands helplessly opened and closed on the wet pavement. A sibling, still clinging to her mother, was not so lucky. When most people think about manslaughter, they assume that the victim is another human being; but in this case, the victims were opossums.
Not all hit-and-runs are the result of a reckless or intoxicated driver. Some are simply the result of a person rushing to work, driving while tired, or expecting an animal to get out of the way themselves. But in every one of these cases, fleeing the scene is no different than fleeing the scene of an accident involving a human being. Opossums spend the first fifty to sixty days securely tucked inside their mother’s pouch. Even if a mother opossum is killed, her babies are often still alive, trapped in her pouch and in need of help. Even birds who many expect to fly out of the way may not be able to, even if they’re totally healthy. Songbird fledglings are unable to fly for one to two weeks after leaving the nest. For waterfowl, learning to fly takes even longer: fifty to sixty days for ducks and three months for geese. During baby season, even the parents of ducks or geese may be unable to fly, going through a molt – shedding their flight feathers to make room for new ones. And if a goose is killed in the road, their partner may refuse to leave their body for days or even weeks while mourning.
For this week’s Anuvrat or small vow, I urge you to remember that our roads have been paved through the homes of wildlife. Channel your inner Jain monastic – who gently and carefully sweeps the floor before they step – and consider how your travel affects the other animals with whom we share our planet: obey speed limits, pay attention to wildlife crossing signs, consider using public transportation, and perhaps even avoid making unnecessary trips at night when our vision is limited and nocturnal animals find bright lights disorienting or confusing. Slow down for birds choosing to fly or walk across a roadway and be sure to wait until entire families have made it across. If you come across an opossum, check her pouch for babies and contact a wildlife rehabilitator if you find orphans. If you come across a goose mourning their mate, move their mate a safe distance out of the roadway so their partner can mourn in peace. If you see an animal injured, get them help just as you would a human being. Just like humans, the lives of animals have intrinsic value as well as important roles in our ecosystem. Please give wildlife the right of way just like you would any other pedestrian.
Juliana Di Leonardo is the Vice President of Humane Long Island. She is a yoga and ballroom dance instructor, model, and artist. Her advocacy for animals exploited by the fashion industry was credited in the 2021 documentary “The Face of Fashion is Fear” and recognized by PETA with a Hero for Coyotes award.