Even after 20 years of picking up roadkill from Columbus streets, Thomas Hartman never gets used to the smell.
"Summertime is not a treat in this job," said Hartman, the city of Columbus' lone dead-animal pickup guy in the Refuse Collection Division.
Now that temperatures are falling, the detestably sweet smell of carrion is easing. But on a recent trip to the Far West Side to dispose of a possum, Hartman opened the covered bed of his pickup truck and released a staggering stench from a couple of fallen raccoons and a cat.
Yet he looks at his occupation with remarkable pragmatism.
"It's a job. Somebody's got to do it," said Hartman, who has spent 25 years in the refuse division, 20 retrieving animal carcasses.
Hartman, 52, sets his route based on calls from residents and police. Most times, he gets to the animal in 24 hours.
On rare occasions, they're still alive.
"When you reach down and grab at one and they jump at you, that's surprising," he said.
On a recent morning, he set off in his Ford F-250 -- which the guys in the division call the "meat wagon" -- to make 15 stops across the city. On a daily basis, he removes anywhere from 200 to 1,000 pounds of dead animals, which are disposed of at the landfill.
Rick Tilton, deputy director for the Department of Public Service, said while Hartman's job can be unpleasant, it is a vital service.
"A dead animal can be dangerous, especially for children," Tilton said, "but the work Tom does every day helps keep neighborhoods healthy, clean and free of diseases that are sometimes carried by dead animals."
Hartman, who was raised on the South Side, was knocking around in his 20s, doing mostly construction jobs, but didn't like being at the mercy of the weather. He wanted a steady gig with good benefits, so he applied to the city. He had done a number of jobs for the refuse division when the new job was offered.
"I was like, 'Well, I could try it,' " said Hartman, who makes $43,742 a year.
The job security is a bonus.
"No one really wants to do it, so I do it," he said.
He said he thinks he's doing something good for the community. Many times, owners of lost pets will call him, looking for peace of mind. If he can, he'll return a pet to its owners, if they want to give it a proper sendoff.
You name it, Hartman has cleaned it off a road: deer, foxes, squirrels, coyotes and more.
"We get some unusual stuff," he said. "The ostrich was probably the strangest thing."
For some reason, the smell of skunk spray gives him a headache.
About 10 years ago, someone left a big pile of snakes, fish and alligators on the side of the road. That's when the knuckle-boom crane came in handy.
"It was too nasty to pick up," said William Decker, Hartman's co-worker.
Otherwise, Hartman's tools of the trade include rubber insulated gloves and a shovel.
For some, the gross-out factor already is considerable. But the job has its trials for Hartman, too -- specifically when dead animals, in the sweltering heat of summer, get puffed up with gases. And, yes, occasionally they explode on him.
"When that happens, I go home for the day," Hartman said.
At parties and social gatherings, when pleasantries are exchanged, Hartman tells incredulous guests what he does for a living.
"They swear up and down that I made it up," he said.