The US is Losing the War Against Deer Disease


It has been over ten years since Wisconsin endured a kind of deer holocaust. The terminal deer and elk disease, chronic wasting disease (CWD), descended upon its deer population with such vengeance officials declared “CWD eradication” zones in which fauns and does would be killed before bucks. Thousands of deer carcasses were stored in refrigerated trucks in La Crosse while their severed heads were tested for CWD. If the carcasses were disease-free they were safe to eat (any takers?); if not, they were too dangerous to even put in a landfill. Why? Because “prions” (which also cause mad cow disease, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans) are not inactivated by cooking, heat, autoclaves, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, phenol, lye, formaldehyde, or radiation. They remain in the soil indefinitely.

Hunters in Wisconsin and other states were warned to wear surgical gloves when cutting up deer and to avoid exposing open cuts or sores on their hands.  One hunter wrote the local paper that after his buck tested positive for CWD he was worried about the blood on his steering wheel and hunting clothes which his wife was exposed to. There were also cross-contamination risks since deer processors do not usually sterilize their equipment after each deer. Food pantries in Wisconsin and their customers were warned about the risks and it became difficult to donate. (“If this meat is so safe why don’t you eat it?” the poor may have been thinking.)

Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials in Wisconsin and other states assured the public that deer meat was safe, even if it harbored CWD, as long as they avoided eating a deer’s brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen and lymph nodes–the parts also implicated in mad cow disease.  But scientific articles suggested most of the animal contained prions including its kidneys, pancreas, liver, muscle, blood, fat and saliva, antler velvet and birthing material.

Another reason to doubt DNR officials’ reassurances, calculated to keep their funding from hunting licenses flowing, is a 2002 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC titled Fatal Degenerative Neurologic Illnesses in Men Who Participated in Wild Game Feasts —Wisconsin, 2002.

Many animal lovers have noted the hypocrisy of states citing deer “overpopulation” when they encourage deer
breeding farms. What?  Recently a four-part expose in the Indiana Star explores how “the pursuit of deer bred for enormous antlers and shot in hunting pens” on trophy farms is spreading CWD at an alarming rate. Deer breeding and “trophy farms” are a $4 billion a year industry and hotbeds of CWD thanks to their concentration of animals, “communicability window” (from trophy stock trading and escaped animals) and its unknown feed sources.

Like mad cow disease, widely believed to stem from the cost-cutting practice of feeding cows to cows, chronic wasting disease may also have man-made origins. In the mid-1960s, the Department of Wildlife ran a series of nutritional studies on wild deer and elk at the Foothills Wildlife Research Facility in Fort Collins, Colorado and soon after the studies began, however, Foothills deer and elk began dying from a mysterious disease reports  Brian McCombie. The CWD in the deer may have been caused by sheep held at the same facility which had scrapie, say researchers.

Since 2002, Wisconsin’s CWD eradication efforts have failed abysmally. The penned herd of 76 deer at Stan Hall farm has gone from one animal with CWD to 60 in five years writes outdoor reporter Patrick Durkin and in some areas, half of all deer now have the disease. “The world’s most ‘disturbing,’ ‘frightening’ and ‘unprecedented’ CWD case is growing next door to our capital and flagship university, and our government won’t crack a window to sniff it,” he writes.

Clearly using wildlife, which is held in trust by the state for the benefit of the public per the “Public Trust Doctrine”, to profiteer from hunters is unethical and harmful to animals. And despite DNR officials’ assurance, the spread of CWD may prove harmful to humans too.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).



Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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