What we can learn from roadkill
Roaring Fork High School biology teacher Rachel Cooper collects roadkill.
For a few days each spring, her classroom reeks of rotten flesh as the macabre contents of her freezer are brought out to be dissected, defleshed and rearticulated by the zoology class. In the process, students learn to identify their specimen’s species, age, sex and characteristics — and establish a cause of death.
Cooper based the curriculum on a similar program she encountered as a student at the University of Northern Colorado.
“We wanted to give them another science course that anyone could take and not feel intimidated by the content,” she explained. “It’s a chance to get them more familiar with animals and the wildlife around them, and takes them a little out of their comfort zone.”
The school first approved the class five years ago, shortly after the Agricultural Biology program.
“I was actually surprised it made it the second year, because the first year was really smelly,” Cooper said. “It’s come a long way.”
Despite the final project, which Cooper calls “the world’s worst jigsaw puzzle,” zoology attracts an eclectic and enthusiastic crowd.
“Some of those kids that scare themselves out of the higher-level sciences gravitate towards the hands-on,” she said.
It helps that the students who sign have a better idea of what they’re getting into. Finished skeletons decorate the library, and the smell is not always confined to the classroom.
“It’s a huge commitment when you decide to take the class,” Cooper said. “The kids have done so awesome. They easily put in over 100 hours into each of these projects.”
Most of the students seemed to think it was worth it.
“It was a challenge, and I like challenges,” Jordan Medina said. “I honestly think zoology was one of the most interesting classes I’ve had.”
As a hunter, Terran Hurst-Farnham had worked with animal bodies, but found a new experience in reconstruction.
“You have all these little bones that can easily be lost or damaged,” he said. “I learned how to take such a monumental task and make it easier by just working on all the little parts of it.”
Not everyone was quite so enthusiastic.
“It was the most foul thing I ever had to do,” Bella Bailey said. “I wouldn’t take it if Ms. Cooper wasn’t the teacher. She’s awesome.
“I guess I’m glad I did it, since I got out of my comfort zone,” she added. “Now when I pet my cats, I realize I know exactly what everything looks like underneath. That’s really cool to me.”
This year’s specimens included Fred the squirrel, Perry the beaver, Charles the coyote, Jack the rabbit, Terran the fox, Brend and Juliet the chipmunks, and an unnamed prairie dog.
Some were hit by cars, while others met their end in a trap or at the teeth of a household pet. Several of the most unusual animals have come from the Department of Wildlife.
“They?re aware of the strange lady that has the need for roadkill in several counties around here,” Cooper said.
She also works with local ranchers and trappers, and has enlisted friends and relatives who previously swore they’d never participate.
“Now I kind of have the roadkill patrol,” she said.
Cooper enthusiastically embraces her unconventional reputation, and remains enthusiastic in her pursuit of next year’s specimens.
“I love this class,” she said. “I look forward to it every single day and I never go away feeling disappointed.”
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