Before Amanda Stronza heads to Botswana or Nepal during the summers for work, she instructs new dog and house sitters about trash days and tricky light switches at her College Station home. She tells them whom to call if a sink goes bust and where to find spare light bulbs. Stronza also makes sure to mention that if her guests stroll around her 1.6-acre yard, they might stumble upon a femur or a vertebra. In fact, if visitors don’t discover some skeletal remains, it would be a little odd.

“I tell them not to worry if they find bones,” says Stronza. If the potential house sitter looks unsettled, which sometimes happens, Stronza explains that her passion is memorializing animals of all sizes that have been killed along Texas roadsides. Occasionally she’ll bring a turtle or squirrel home because it’s more dignified than letting the corpses decompose in the middle of a busy highway as trucks and Harleys barrel past. The yard is a more peaceful place for vultures to swoop in and continue the cycle of life. “Most people are okay with it and say it’s beautiful,” Stronza says of her hobby. “As long as there are no human bones.”

Stronza, an anthropologist and professor in ecology and conservation biology at Texas A&M University, has devoted her career to understanding how people relate to wildlife. In Botswana, her research focuses on the ways humans and elephants can peacefully coexist. In Nepal, she studies macaque monkeys and tries to understand how local farmers and Indigenous peoples can coexist with an animal that many farmers view as pests. In the Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and Bolivian Amazon, she works on community-based conservation and ecotourism. Thirteen years ago, she turned her love of photography into a side job by becoming part of the SXSW photography crew, taking pictures of speakers, comedians, musicians, and red carpets. Her images have appeared in Rolling Stone and People. But her real passion is wildlife. “I take pictures of Keanu Reeves, and then dead animals,” Stronza says. Now several of her images and eulogies are part of a new exhibit, “The Toll of Texas Roads on Turtles and Snakes,” which opened this week at the J. Wayne Stark Galleries on the A&M campus. The show is a collaboration with herpetologist Lee Fitzgerald and illustrator Rachel Ivanyi.

Stronza stumbled upon the idea for this unusual work in January 2019, when she was walking her dog, Matilda, around Lady Bird Lake and noticed throngs of bikers and joggers ignoring a lifeless squirrel in the middle of the path. Stronza moved the squirrel away from foot traffic. She placed tree bark and delicate purple flowers around its body, snapped a photo, and shared it on Instagram along with a heartfelt eulogy. The post soon garnered hundreds of likes. For several months, she kept posting memorials, interspersed with her pictures of living elephants and other animals from her travels. Six months later, after someone shared a few of her memorials, her social media started blowing up, adding thousands of new followers each day. “I thought I had been hacked,” she says.

This Texas Photographer Turns Dead Animals Into Poignant Portraits
Prairie kingsnake, 2020.Amanda Stronza

Her Instagram account now has more than 50,000 followers. Some send messages to tell her that they also memorialize animals killed along roadsides. Others simply thank her for paying tribute to skunks and roadrunners. Occasionally she’ll get a comment saying her hobby is creepy or asking why she’s not helping living animals (which she does, through her research and by raising money for rescue groups such as Austin Pets Alive!).

To really get a feel for what goes into the creation of Stronza’s memorials, I decide that a little road trip is in order. I get upset when I see a coyote or an owl lying on the side of a road, but I never think of stopping, so I’m a little nervous to get up close and personal with a creature in who knows what stage of rigor mortis. Stronza suggests we meet at the Buc-ee’s in Bastrop, off Texas Highway 71 just southeast of Austin. She pulls up in a dark gray Subaru Forester, and I hop in. A little toy panda is perched on the dashboard, and a few blankets are tossed in the back seat. “This car is a little bit of a hearse,” Stronza says after we hug hello. And with that admission, we head out on the road.

This Texas Photographer Turns Dead Animals Into Poignant Portraits
Coyote, 2021.Amanda Stronza

Stronza is not the first person to memorialize road-killed animals (she prefers that term to “roadkill,” which she finds demeaning). She cites Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mary Oliver and nature writer Barry Lopez as inspirations, specifically Lopez’s book Apologia, which is about a road trip in which he removed dead animals from roadsides. Ben Goldfarb, an environmental journalist based in Colorado and author of the recent book Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet, says that both his and Stronza’s endeavors are “part of a larger national conversation about habitat fragmentation caused by roads, poaching, and deforestation. There is nothing we do to kill more wild animals than drive.”

Goldfarb writes that more than one million large animals, such as deer and elk, are killed by car collisions in America per year, plus as many as 340 million birds. Then there are the myriad frogs, snakes, armadillos, and tiny critters we pass by without even noticing. Goldfarb points out the endangered ocelots that live in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, in South Texas. Only about eighty to a hundred of the cats remain in Texas, and vehicles are a major cause of their deaths. “Amanda’s work matters,” says Goldfarb. “We feel like we see a lot of roadkill, but we’re only seeing a tiny fraction. We’re trapped in our metal-and-glass bubbles racing along at ninety miles per hour.”

In Bastrop, Stronza drives steadily, not speedily, east along Texas Highway 21. I feel conflicted about the fact that I’m hoping to find an animal that’s been hit, and we do pass a few that are either in too dangerous of a location on the busy road or too far gone to handle. We spot an owl in the median, and Stronza says that seeing a bird’s feathers ruffle in the wind as cars drive by breaks her heart. Most people feel for cats, dogs, or deer along the road, but snakes, armadillos, and skunks don’t elicit the same response. Some passersby will even swerve on purpose to run over a snake. Stronza talks about the “hierarchy of grief” and her hopes that the new exhibit at A&M might help people view a rat snake with as much respect as they do a beloved cat or dog. “In America especially, we have an aversion to death, and we’re not good at talking about it,” she says. “We don’t see these animals as worthy of our grief.”

As fate would have it, we spot a black cat lying in the median along Highway 21. Stronza finds a safe place to pull over. We hop out, and she grabs a lavender-colored blanket from the back. Walking into the middle of a busy Texas highway to retrieve a deceased cat is not one of my bucket list items, but I dutifully follow behind Stronza. She gently picks up the animal, whispers a few words of comfort, and dashes back to the Forester. She places the cat in the back, and we drive a few feet to a safe side road, where she puts the body on the grass and gathers leaves to place over it. Stronza says about 80 percent of her memorials are left near roadsides. She only brings them home if they’re in good condition and she finds them close by. While she’s leaf hunting, a man in a pickup stops and asks if we need help. I smile and say we’re just fine, and he pulls away with a confused look on his face, likely because I’m standing out in the wind and cold next to a dead cat.

This Texas Photographer Turns Dead Animals Into Poignant Portraits
Skunk, 2023.Amanda Stronza

Once she explains what she’s up to, Stronza says, most onlookers who stop to see what she’s doing find it “beautiful” or comforting. A state trooper once pulled over, and instead of scolding her, he thanked her. When she was memorializing a wild hog on the side of the road, two women with “big Texas hair” slowed to a crawl and rolled down the car window. Stronza braced herself for an admonition. Once she explained herself, though, the women said they were moved. Stronza always has a microchip scanner in the car, so she can make sure an animal didn’t belong to someone. So far, she hasn’t had to go knock on a stranger’s door to deliver bad news.

When she finishes taking photos and saying kind words to the cat, we drive a little farther east and stop for a raccoon. Stronza, unsurprisingly, loves raccoons. We find a safe spot for her to place the animal. Cars and trucks speed along the highway, their tires creating a cacophony of sound as she crouches down to arrange leaves over the raccoon’s fur. “This is what I hear,” she says of the road noise. “I hear how violent it is, how it must feel to be a raccoon.”

Since telling most Texans to quit driving cars is out of the question, Stronza and Goldfarb both suggest that driving more conscientiously would be a good place to start. In 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes $350 million for wildlife-vehicle collision reduction grants. Wildlife crossings, designed to give animals safe passage over or under roads, are one way to decrease deaths. In San Antonio, the 150-foot Robert L. B. Tobin Land Bridge is used by deer, rabbits, and possums, while concrete culverts provide safe passage for ocelots in South Texas.

Stronza lives and teaches in College Station during the week and stays at her place in Austin on the weekends, so she frequently drives along Highway 21. I ask her how often she stops to photograph dead animals. She tells me she pulls over at least twice each time she makes the drive, but she has to limit herself. “I can’t stop for every animal I see, but it’s hard for me to not turn around,” Stronza says as we drive back toward Bastrop. “I like bearing witness to these animals, because so many of us don’t look at all.”