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Zack Metcalfe's Article on the Perils of Sharing the Road and Watching for Wildlife

Published in the Chronicle Herald, August 14th, 2016

The Perils of Sharing our Roadways

: Watch for Wildlife program puts untimely collisions in public eye

-- In the early fall of last year, while driving home down the Bedford Highway, I saw something which I never quite forgot. The vehicles on the road ahead of me were merging into the opposite lane to avoid some obstacle ahead and I followed suit, not laying eyes on the tragic scene until I was nearly alongside. It was a cat, the lower half of its body crushed by the unforgiving treads of a fellow motorist, and it was alive, flailing and writhing with agony beyond my comprehension.

The sight of such useless and unnecessary suffering bothered me a long time and the part which bothers me still is that I kept driving. I and everyone else gave this poor creature space when it needed it least, instead of pulling over and doing something. I think most of us felt helpless in the face of such pain, unsure of what to do and thus embracing inaction.

While my experience was with a domestic cat, this issue affects wildlife most of all. We don’t know how many precisely but thousands of lives are lost on our highways every year in exactly this fashion, an unintentional slaughter met mostly with blind eyes. Thankfully, that no longer has to be the case.

A new program launched within our borders called Watch for Wildlife Nova Scotia, under the banner of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, is putting the issue of collisions with wildlife firmly in the public eye.

This educational initiative encourages simple solutions like driving consciously, cautiously, scanning the road ahead, breaking rather than swerving and proceeding patiently after an animal crosses in case they have friends close behind, but it’s more than that. They hope also to recruit citizen scientists to report collisions and help fill our gaps in knowledge surrounding the extent and consequences of this issue.

If successful, they might be able to identify overarching solutions, such as signage in collision hotspots, fencing, overpasses, underpasses and to advocate for these solutions in road projects to come, many of which already exist in force elsewhere in the world. It would seem Nova Scotia is falling behind.

Preventing these unnecessary losses of life goes beyond any moral priorities we might have, although they’re as good a reason as any to slow down and watch the road ahead. In my mind, the risk these collisions pose to endangered species is paramount. I can’t tell you how many of the animals I’ve profiled, whose populations of only a few hundred strong, are shoved ever closer to extinction with the loss of even a single individual.

Suddenly, our inattentiveness behind the wheel causes more than just suffering. It can prevent a species’ recovery or, in time, ensure its disappearance.

I recall one instance when I drove in a fully conscious manner southward toward Kejimkujik National Park for a piece I was writing on the Blanding’s turtle, a species-at-risk with perhaps 400-500 members left in our province. Among the myriad threats hindering their survival was the persistence of vehicle collisions on the south shore.

Signage in the region was helpful, reminding me always of the dangers and preventing any lapses into complacency. The difference in my driving experience was unmistakeable as I remained aware always of what lay ahead.

In the 40 minutes I spent on those rural roads my attentiveness spared two lives, both of them turtles I spotted in time to avoid. In fact, I pulled over each time and hastened their journey over the hot asphalt lest someone behind me pay less mind. This was the result of my own daring, mind you, as Watch for Wildlife prioritizes driver safety above all else.

They recommend honking your horn to disillusion any deer in headlights, but in the case of a turtle I thought more direct intervention was called for. Neither was a Blanding’s turtle but they could easily have been and I seriously doubt I would have seen them were I not on the lookout.

Participating in the Watch for Wildlife program takes effort, but most of all it takes courage to report a collision, even if you were involved and to address the suffering that’s all too easy to ignore.

I encourage you to visit their website and review their tips, their emergency contacts in case of an incident and their resources for becoming involved. You can even pick up a bumper magnet, converting your automobile into a travelling reminder of the dangers we pose to wildlife: watchforwildlife.ca.

Collisions of this kind could happen to any of us and it’s imperative to know how they can be avoided and, perhaps more importantly, what to do if one happens anyway. We need not be helpless.

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