Thousands of animals are killed on roads and highways in the United States every year. One of life’s great mysteries: What happens to them?

Drivers are familiar with roadkill. Many have driven past a dead deer or skunk on the highway, thought, “Oh, the poor thing,” and then continued driving. Maybe the next day we drive the same road and find the carcass has disappeared. Most dead animals are dragged into the woods and devoured by other hungry animals, or scavenged by crows right there on the roadside. In Alaska, however, the roadkill process is a little different.

Alaskans treat roadkill much like hunted game. For a society with a frontier mindset, letting perfectly good meat rot on the highway is a terrible waste. But that doesn’t mean roadkill is a free for all, where the first person in a truck that comes along simply gets to strap that moose to the roof and drive away. Since meat from a single moose can feed a family for several months, roadkill is in high demand. Thus, the Alaska Roadkill Lottery was born.

The Roadkill Lottery is an organized system designed to ensure that all members of the community have an equal chance at “winning” a recently killed animal. A family might spend years waiting on the roadkill list before eventually being chosen, but once they are, they’re the proud recipient of thousands of pounds of quality meat and the envy of neighbors.

How does the Roadkill Lottery work?

The lottery was started by the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife and is designed to prevent people from simply claiming roadkill independently. Getting on the roadkill list is simple. Receiving a moose, however, is not. To get on the list, community members fill out an application and wait their turn. Unfortunately, that wait can last quite a while. Jennifer LaBar, who has lived in Alaska for over a decade and operates Outer Range Dogsled Tours in Healy, tells me how pretty much everyone is eager for a few hundred pounds of moose meat and roadkill is in high demand.

“That’s Alaska’s mentality,” she says. “It is disrespectful and a shame to let the nourishing, organic, free-range meat be wasted. Plus during hunting season you are not always guaranteed a moose. Many areas close to a road are overrun with hunters these days and unless you fly in somewhere you aren’t guaranteed a moose in your own backyard. So the roadkill list is a great way to fill the freezer any time of year.”

Anyone lucky enough to be chosen is expected to retrieve the carcass and arrange how to transport it. It’s also expected that the chosen ones will share with neighbors because, unlike the real lottery, remaining anonymous with hundreds of pounds of meat isn’t exactly an option in small, tight-knit communities.

Not all meat is fit for human consumption, however. Any roadkill that has rotted or is found to be contaminated is still put to use by dog mushers or trappers as dog food or trapping bait. “Nothing goes to waste,” LaBar says. “Even when the pelt and bones and scraps are tossed they are devoured by birds and small critters.”

What about the rest of the country?

While most states don’t have their roadkill strategy down to a science like Alaska, that doesn’t mean states aren’t getting creative when it comes to animal disposal and meat use. LaBar lived in Arkansas for a year, where her husband worked at a deer processing facility during hunting season.

“There were a lot of deer brought in and offered up for donation,” she says. “Farmers down there have nuisance tags and can kill as many deer as they want because they eat so many of their crops. And some people just like to hunt for sport but don’t like the meat. So all that extra meat got donated. Other states could at least do that much, in my opinion.”

Indeed, Arkansas’ Hunters for the Hungry program partners with hunters to provide free meat to needy citizens.

There are other states that allow citizens to salvage roadkill with proper permits and documentation. In these states, like Oregon and Colorado, citizens can apply individually for permits that will give them permission to remove the animal from the road and use the meat. Alaska’s community-based system, however, which ensures fair and equal distribution, remains one of a kind.

“I feel like every state should be doing this,” LaBar says.