Scavengers

Charles Dickens

Gaffer Hexam and Lizzie fishing for corpses on the Thames.
Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend. Clarendon edition, 1864

“Half savage as the man showed, with no covering on his matted head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow on his shoulder, with the loose knot of a looser kerchief lying low on his bare breast in a wilderness of beard and whisker, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made out of the mud that begrimed his boat, still there was business-like usage in his steady gaze” (Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend).

Scavengers get a bad rap. In Dicken’s story, Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie made a living from scavenging corpses floating in the Thames. They rummaged pockets for valuables before giving the bodies up to the authorities. But one day he found a body with papers identifying it as John Harmon, a missing man, and Gaffer was accused of his murder. Living in squalor and in thickets of thieves, scavengers soon fall under suspicion of crime.

In Tudor England a skawager was a customs collector (a more honorable occupation today, although it still causes sinking feelings in a traveler waved to their desk). Over time, the word scavenger emerged as the name for any kind of street cleaner. In removing waste and carrion they performed useful services, although it was not realized until mid-Victorian times that they were helping to safeguard the public from epidemic diseases.

I remember scavengers when I was growing up in London. Those so-called “totters” were easily recognized with their horse and cart and hand bells or from their ringing voices,

“Rags and bones! Rags and bones!” We didn’t have much household waste in the 1950s

because post-war austerity still held a vice-grip on domestic budgets. Most of our stuff was collected by “dustmen” (garbage collectors), but some choice items were saved for the rag-and-bone man, like the remains of the Sunday roast joint which we were told would be rendered by some miracle into glue or soap. Children liked to stroke the horse stamping outside their homes while the man loaded his cart, but their parents often called them indoors until the ragamuffin went away.

In the BBC sitcom, Steptoe and Son (1962-74), Harold and his irascible father Albert are in the business together, although not in any other sense together. Harold aspired to a better life, deriding Albert as “a dirty old man,” but his pretensions to middle class respectability in a rag-and-bone yard always let him down, especially with women. We laughed at the show from the comfort of our living room, and the comedy crossed the Atlantic to become Sanford and Son. It is harder for the Millennial Generation to understand the rag-and-bone trade because, after four centuries of keeping our streets cleaner and freer of disease, it had almost vanished by 1980. Its last representative in London, Alf Masterson, died in 2007.

Animal scavengers don’t enjoy any better reputation than rag-and-bone men. Hyenas, raccoons, rats, flies, dung beetles, et cetera are all regarded as vermin. And although birds are more generally loved than most other animals, vultures are regarded with particular loathing.

Riding the thermals, vultures are aerial marvels that catch the slightest uplift even on cold days; and to watch a condor hanging over the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is a memory to savor long after the vacation. In the eastern and southern USA turkey vultures and black vultures patrol the countryside from several hundred feet scouting for carrion

turkey vulture

Turkey vulture.
Courtesy: Virginia Master Naturalists

with their sharp eyes, although it is often the turkey vulture’s exceptional sense of smell that catches the first savory whiff of a meal. Where it dives its brethren quickly follow. Black vultures are the more sociable of the two species, but both are intelligent like that other carrion-eating family, the crows, but vultures are more reviled. The sight of a venue (the collective noun for a vulture gathering) around a carcass with their naked heads bobbing in and out of the gore looks revolting, although we don’t have the same reaction to the look-alike heads of wild turkeys. Baldness makes hygienic sense for this kind of diner, and it also helps to control body temperature in hot sun. Despite a scuzzy appearance, they are finicky about preening because their lives depend on their plumage.

black vulture swiping windshield blade

Black vulture – windshield wiper swiper.
Courtesy: Virginia Master Naturalists

These “buzzards” have become more common since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) which protects them from casual shooting, and they have spread north of the Mason-Dixon Line to breed in Canada. Perhaps they are responding to global warming, but certainly to food supplies.

According to the National Highway Traffic Administration the numbers of white-tailed deer have increased from half a million in 1900 to perhaps 15-20 million today, and many of them stalk suburban gardens and public parks close to roads. Every year 1.5 million vehicular accidents with deer are reported, which cause 150 human fatalities on average, 10,000

dumpster

vulture feeding station

injuries, and a billion dollars in costs. Vultures have often cleaned the road-kill before a highway maintenance crew arrives to dispose of the carcass. They are not always so welcome, particularly at landfills and around dumpsters backing onto schools and shopping centers, but they always provide services gratis.

Vultures in India and Pakistan are not faring so well, and some are in crisis. Populations have crashed by 98% from consuming carcasses of livestock treated with the anti-inflammatory diclofenac. Despite bans on the veterinary drug, their numbers have not bounced back and the costs of losing these scavengers are tragic and still being counted. Carrion often carries disease organisms normally destroyed in the guts of vultures but which survive passage through feral dogs and rats, which become carriers and spread rabies, anthrax, brucellosis, plague, and dangerous strains of E. coli. Bites from these animals are now even more serious, and carcasses left to rot contaminate water supplies, adding to human misery and fatalities. The Parsi (Zoroastrians) mourn the vultures that used to consume their dead relatives in funeral rites, and we should grieve the loss for many reasons.

The habits of vultures have barred them from ever becoming symbols of a nation, although the American bald eagle is a part-time scavenger. Sometimes an eagle can be seen crouching over road-kill, and even in vulture company. Benjamin Franklin was unhappy when the bald eagle was chosen for the Great Seal of the USA, and in 1784 wrote his daughter Sally:

Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin on $100 bill

“For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly…too lazy to fish for himself… (but) the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and…though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

If the ways of bald eagles made them ill-suited to be national symbols the British lion is also a national embarrassment. But many top predators—lions, tigers, white sharks, and even piranhas—will take carrion given an opportunity. And our prehistoric ancestors probably had few qualms about carving left-over flesh from beasts that were preyed on by other animals, which brings me back to our species as the top waste-maker and recycler.

Adam Minter, the son of a Minneapolis scrap dealer, describes how the humble rag-and-bone trade has evolved into a vast and hugely profitable industry (Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade). Canny businessmen have always known that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In Our Mutual Friend, the corpse that Gaffer Hexam recovered from the murky Thames was misidentified as John Harmon, the heir to a fortune made by his estranged father from collecting garbage from London streets. That reminds me of a sage saying I often heard in Yorkshire, “Where there’s muck there’s brass (money).”

Thanks to friends at the Virginia Master Naturalists (Historic Rivers Chapter) for permission to reproduce images.

Next Post: Lovely Lilah

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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