NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If only the bill had contained the word "deer," then perhaps the possum jokes could have been stopped flat. If the bill had just made it clear that someone who hits a deer on the highway can take home the carcass and eat it, then maybe Tennessee would have been spared all the raccoon cookbooks, the dead-skunk songs, the bumper stickers, the sniggering headlines, the laughter that has lighted up the Legislature for the past few weeks.
But no. Instead, the author phrased it this way: "Wild animals accidentally killed by a motor vehicle may be possessed by any person for personal use and consumption."In other words, it would be legal to eat road kill. Legal to eat the thousands of squirrels, opossums, raccoons and rabbits that meet a painfully horizontal death every year beneath rubber tires. As if a state law were preventing anyone from scraping a Happy Meal off the asphalt. As if anyone would even dream of it.
From the clamor of the reaction, it seemed as if the state government had ordered a reversion to Tennessee's mountain-man roots, closing the groceries and forcing residents to hunt for their supper. "Grease the skillet, Ma! New bill will make road kill legal eatin'," read a headline in The Knoxville News-Sentinel last month.
As it happens, there is a legitimate-sounding premise to the legislation, though it immediately became known as the road-kill bill.
Tim Burchett, the notoriety-loving Republican state senator who proposed the law, was recently contacted by a constituent who was fined after he accidentally hit a deer and then gave the meat to a migrant family.
The law currently requires that such accidents be reported immediately to the state Wildlife Resources Agency, which must tag the animal before it can be consumed.
Such accidents happen with increasing frequency in Tennessee, where the deer herd has multiplied more than 200-fold over the past 50 years to its current record size of nearly 1 million. The wildlife agency estimates that there are 10,000 collisions every year between vehicles and deer.
But Burchett believes the tagging requirement is an infringement upon personal liberty, not to mention a waste of perfectly good venison, which, he adds soulfully, could be donated to the homeless.
"I know, because it's Tennessee, everyone's going to make us look like a bunch of hayseed rednecks, and I understand that, and I know the media's getting a big kick out of this," Burchett said. "But after all, the government's supposed to help people with their problems, and this is just a common-sense thing."