GREENVILLE – Melissa Ouellette didn’t see the moose until its beady eyes were staring at her from the middle of the road.
The 1,000-pound moose whomped the front of the Jeep she was riding in, smashing the windows and sending Ouellette and the driver to the hospital.
Both survived with minor injuries and were left with a dilemma as they were treated at the hospital: Did they want the dead moose?
Maine law, similar to some other states, gives the driver of a vehicle that kills a big-game animal first dibs on the carcass. In practice, however, the driver who hit the moose is often too injured to claim it.
So starts the chain of events that can lead to fights, help to feed the hungry and provide food for zoo animals.
A butchered or dressed moose, which can’t be bought or sold anywhere in Maine, can yield hundreds of pounds of food in the freezer.
Maine law spelling out who owns big-game roadkill comes into play fairly often. Last year, 687 moose collisions were reported on Maine’s highways. Motorists were killed in two of those.
So far this year, the state is on a similar pace for moose collisions, but the four fatalities already recorded make this the deadliest year since 1998, when five people died in moose-car collisions.
Part of the problem has been Maine’s late-breaking summer in which moose fled the woods to escape bugs later than usual, leaving them munching salty plants along roads at the height of the tourist season.
More moose on the loose means more crushed cars, more carcasses along the roads, and more work for butchers.
In Ouellette’s case, she was too shaken to want to take home the moose that destroyed the Jeep Cherokee she was riding in down Route 161.
“It would have been good to keep it, but we were all too much in shock,” said Ouellette, 33, of Fort Kent.
The exact opposite happened last November in York County. Lisa Pierce was upset because she wasn’t consulted before the moose was given away after she hit it while taking her children to school.
After a sheriff’s deputy gave the moose to a resident who volunteered to haul it away while Pierce was at the hospital, Pierce told police she wanted either the meat or a reimbursement for the value of the meat.
It’s not just the meat people are after.
Warden Adam Gormely said he’s gotten into arguments at accident scenes with people who want to cut off the moose’s antlers but leave the rest. A well-shaped large antler is worth around $500.
A dead moose unattended on the side of the road is a prime target for antler hunters.
“If you leave [the moose] there for 15 minutes, the antlers are gone,” Gormely said.
If the driver doesn’t want it, Maine’s game wardens turn to informal lists of people who are interested in moose.
But those interested have to be able to hoist the moose, which typically weigh 500 to 800 pounds, onto a truck and haul it away within hours. A moose doesn’t last long in the hot sun.
“Everybody would like a bunch of moose meat but at 2 in the morning in July … no one wants to come out, chop up a moose, pack it and take it away,” Gormely said.
After removing the moose, some people have been known to dress them with a chain saw, but the professionals use more finesse.
Pros using butcher knifes are able to save more meat. Butchers such as Herring Bros. in Guilford skin, chop and package moose for around $250 for 320 pounds of usable moose meat.
Then there’s the problem of storing the meat after it’s processed into steaks, roasts, hamburg and sausage.
“That does not fit above the refrigerator,” Gormely quipped.
If no one else claims the moose, then it will likely be claimed by Hunters for the Hungry as long as it is a good specimen, meaning it’s not too mangled or covered with ticks.
The cooperative program run by hunters, the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Agriculture Department’s Food Assistance Program makes sure moose meat doesn’t go to waste by taking care of the pickup and chop-up, then donating the meat to local food pantries.
Or it could end up as zoo chow.
The Acadia Zoo in Trenton accepts donations of moose and deer roadkill. The carnivorous animals, including lions, tigers, and cougars, prefer tearing apart fresh flesh to their typical fare of chicken and horse meat, director Heather Grierson said.