Laurie Speakman is passionate about moose meat.
Partly it is the flavor of the meat, which to her is milder than beef, and great on the barbecue. What matters even more, she said, is moose meat for charity.
When a moose weighing half a ton or more is killed on a highway on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage — something that can easily happen 125 times a year in that part of the state — Speakman gets the call. As a volunteer with the Alaska Moose Federation, she goes to the scene, winches the carcass onto her truck and delivers it to hungry families or religious and civic groups on a waiting list, which then butcher and distribute the meat.
"I work my life around roadkill," said Speakman, 45, whose Facebook page declares her alter ego, Laurie the Moose Lady. "My heart and soul is into this because people are getting fed."
So it irks her, she said, when moose go missing. Under state law, animals struck and killed on Alaska's highways are state property and may be handled only by authorized groups, such as the federation. But illegal carcass harvesting is occurring with increasing frequency in Alaska, said the group's executive director, Don Dyer, who just last week stumbled upon evidence that pointed to moose theft.
"This last Sunday, about 3 o'clock in the morning, we got a call, and we got out there and someone had cut an entire shoulder out of a moose," Dyer said in a telephone interview. "Some people out there say, 'Well, it's just roadkill,' and if they're hungry, they're entitled to it, but the fact of the matter is that when somebody steals a whole moose, it impacts a lot of people."
The goal of distributing meat from animals killed on the road is not new in Alaska, but before the creation of the federation in 2002, that meant butchering the animal where it died. The work could take a team two or three hours, cutting up 250 to 300 pounds of meat or more, sometimes in dangerous traffic and brutal weather. Transport by the federation's drivers — there are now six, including Speakman — cleared crash sites faster and saved time and money for state troopers.
Roadkill's power as a punch line for stand-up comedians, politicians and songwriters probably dates to the early days of the automobile. But harvesting food from the highway is increasingly earning some respect beyond Alaska.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for example, the advocacy group better known by its acronym, PETA, has endorsed the harvest of animals killed on the road as a more ethical and humane way to get meat than through commercial agriculture practices that use feedlots and slaughterhouses.
In a statement, the group said, "If the state is going to provide the needy with animal carcasses rather than doing the right thing by serving healthy plant-based food, roadkill is a superior option." About 20 states — from Florida and Vermont to Colorado and Illinois — allow some legal taking of wild meat killed by accident, according to the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which changed its rules last month to allow the practice.
In most of the United States, the deer is by far the most likely animal to be hit by a vehicle. State Farm Insurance estimates that more than 1.2 million deer, elk and moose — mostly deer — were struck in 2015 in the United States, with West Virginia being statistically the most dangerous place to be an ungulate crossing the road.
And at least one academic who has studied the issue said he believed evolution was changing the behavior of animal populations, which have learned to adapt to the ribbons of highway and the shiny machines that roar past day and night.
"There is just less space for creatures, and they have in some cases been changed," said Roger Knutson, a retired professor of biology and the author of the book "Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways." Knutson's book, first published in the mid-1980s, quotes, for example, a study of hedgehogs — a kind of animal famous for curling up into a ball when threatened. When the animals come to highways now, the study said, they have learned to run instead.
The legal wrinkles of harvesting animals killed on the road vary. In Idaho, for example, people are required to call a wildlife worker or law enforcement official to kill an injured animal before it can be taken. In Washington, salvagers can load a dead deer or elk into their vehicle and drive away, but they must contact the Department of Fish and Wildlife within 24 hours to get a permit.
Speakman said she feels loved by those she helps. Several local organizations and Alaska Native tribal groups regularly give her gas cards to help out.
"I've had a few charities that made me breakfast. Some will give me coffee. I kind of get spoiled a little bit," she said. But she draws the line at taking any meat for herself. "I've had a couple of charities offer some to me, and I will not accept it — there are needy families out there, and I don't want to take away from them."
She gets her moose meat by hunting. And she is thinking of eventually writing her own moose-meat cookbook. "I've got some recipes," she said.