Honoring Animal Lives through Memorials

Turtle shell on soil with yellow and pink flowers on it

For years, I have stopped to lift dead animals from roads. I cannot bear to leave them—the endless rush of cars, further assaulting their bodies, feels too cruel. I have a practice of creating memorials for them, usually in the grassy median of the highway, under a tree, or in my backyard.

My intention is to notice and give attention, to honor and see the animals as individuals. I want to acknowledge the lives they had and lost. Too often humans treat dead animals as objects, as “roadkill.” But they are beings who share the world with us. They deserve our care, even in death. In honoring the dead, I also seek to honor the living species, providing safer places for the vultures, foxes, opossums, and others who feed on carrion and sustain themselves on the deaths of others.

Memorial making is a time-honored practice. I was inspired by the late naturalist author Barry Lopez, who writes about his anguish in finding so much animal death on roads in his essay “Apologia” (later released as a beautiful book with woodcut art by Robin Eschner). On a journey across North America, he stopped for countless animals, removing their bodies from the asphalt and lamenting the brutalities of the modern world. He writes, “The raccoons and, later, a red fox carry like sacks of wet gravel and sand. Each animal is like a solitary child’s shoe in the road.” His words of compassion and care are at the heart of every memorial I’ve created. I have since learned of dozens of artists and activists all over the world who do this practice without fanfare or show, simply to honor and show respect for the animals.

Through these memorials, I share photographs of the animals and write short narratives about each online and in print. I write of how I found them, how I felt in their presence, the details of their forms, and any life history or life story I can read from their remains. My writing is intentionally emotional so readers can feel what other kinds of scientific writing can sometimes cover over. Conservation scientists write about populations or species in decline. I write so people may see, feel, and care for animals as individual beings. I write about how the manner of their dying tells me more about my human community and how it ignores deaths of animals perceived as not “owned,” not “pets” or kin. 

My hope is that readers may see, care, and even dare to look closely and be reminded of the bonds we share with the nonhuman world.

In these photographs, I frame the animals to show elegance and beauty, even in still bodies—to show life rather than death. I want to make visible the ribbons of a snake, the wisps of fur on the belly of an armadillo, the sentient light in the eyes of a snapping turtle, the gradations of black and gray on the vulture, the gentle, soft face of a porcupine. Without the photos, without the circles of berries, flowers, and leaves that adorn their broken bodies, some humans may never look at a dead animal. They may never see. 

I photograph the animals not to sensationalize but, rather the opposite, to normalize death. Besides the realms of medicine, hospice, mortuary, art, or poetry, it seems so many people are sheltered from and resistant to the idea of death. I understand why. But it’s odd, too. Humans are surrounded by death. If we are paying attention, we will see death everywhere, right next to life—decay giving way to growth, deceased bodies sustaining and nourishing vital ones. 

Of course, animals die for all kinds of reasons unrelated to humans. They die of diseases, injuries, old age, and accidents. They die simply by interacting with other species and with other members of their own species. They become prey, succumb to battles of dominance, or lose fights over territory. But in these memorials, I ask viewers to see the highly unequal relationship between humans and other animals, to see how animals can become collateral damage in the development of human infrastructure. Humans in the global north tend to live their lives with themselves at the center, barely noticing the lives of others, barely caring about their deaths. I ask us to acknowledge human dominance by seeing the harms caused by roads. I ask us to pause, look, and apologize—for all the ways humans have disrupted and destroyed animals’ homes, nurseries, pathways, waterways, playgrounds, and hiding places.

In honoring the dead, I also seek to honor the living species.

Humans build worlds on top of animal worlds. Strip malls, gas stations, parking lots, duplexes, and high-rises disrupt their worlds and replace animal spaces. Roads dissect what was whole and connected in animal lives—their dwellings that had meaning and purpose. Buildings interrupt their flyways with glass that looks like sky. Waterworks—all the digging, drilling, damming, piping, containing, restricting, channeling, and re-channeling—cause water depletion, forcing animals to move in search of other sources, crossing yet more roads.

“I’m sorry” is what I say to each animal. I take the liberty of saying it on behalf of humankind, for cruelties and harms, intentional or not, and indifferences. My hope is that readers may see, care, and even dare to look closely and be reminded of the bonds we share with the nonhuman world. My hope is that in remembering these connections, we may blend ourselves with animals again, us with them.

Featured image: A snapping turtle found on the edge of a five-lane road and memorialized in the author’s backyard. Photo by author, 2021.

All photos taken by author in 2020 and 2021.

Amanda Stronza is an anthropologist and professor in Ecology and Conservation Biology at Texas A&M University. Her research and advocacy focus on community-based approaches to conservation. In 2013, she co-founded Ecoexist, an NGO in Botswana aimed at fostering coexistence between people and elephants. Since 1993, her work in the Amazon has documented and supported Indigenous stewardship of wildlife. Her latest projects are about human-predator interactions in the Kalahari, and human–macaque relations in Nepal. More of Amanda’s animal memorials can be found on her Instagram. Website. Contact.