This has been a tough time for deer, and it has nothing to do with hauling a jolly big guy and presents on a sleigh.
Back in January, I wrote for Forbes about how chronic wasting disease (CWD), otherwise known non-affectionately as the “zombie deer disease,” had spread to at least 22 states in the U.S. and a couple provinces in Canada. The suspected culprit for this disease is a very small infectious agent called a prion. In CWD the brains of deer, moose, and elk progressively become like sponges. Not sponges in a good “absorb-more-information” way but sponges in a bad “develop-more-and-more-real-holes” way. This leads to a slow deterioration in brain function, resulting in severe weight loss, loss of energy, poor balance and coordination, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, more aggressive behavior, and typically eventual death. Hence, the descriptive moniker “zombie deer disease.”
Humans can’t get the disease, yet. But as you know, what happens with other animals doesn’t always stay with those animals. Diseases have jumped species in the past. Just look at the so-called “mad cow disease.” Another name for mad cow disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), three words that basically mean “cow”, “form of a sponge”, and “brain disease.” Like CWD, a prion (albeit another type) is the suspected culprit. Like CWD, the brain with BSE progressively deteriorates and becomes more like a sponge, leading to worsening neurological disease. The cow will become more uncoordinated, having trouble walking and potentially getting nervous or violent (hence the “mad,”) and then typically eventually passes away, as described by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
However, unlike CWD, if humans eat contaminated cow’s meat, they could get Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is also a brain disease that causes progressive deterioration of brain function and eventual death. So, wipe that “well, I’m a human and not a deer” smug smile off your face.
What’s the latest on the spread of CWD? Now, at least 24 states have had deer, elk, or moose with CWD. The latest state to see CWD is Tennessee. And its not just ten that they have seen. According to News Channel 5 in Nashville, wildlife officials have found at least 13 cases of CWD in deer in Tennessee’s Fayette and Hardeman counties.
As a result, some of the states bordering Tennessee have been taking precautions to keep CED from entering their states. For example, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is saying that if you want to bring deer from Tennessee into Kentucky you’ve got to remove their brains and spinal columns first. Adding to that wonderful announcement, according to NBC 12, Virginia is limiting imported deer meat to “boned-out or quartered meat, hides or capes with no skulls attached, cleaned skulls or skull plates with no attached tissue, clean antlers or finished taxidermy products.” Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri have already seen CWD.
The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) states that as of August 1 2018, at least 23 states in the U.S. have had reported cases of CWD. Tennessee wasn’t on that list, so by my count the number is now at at least 24 states. Overall, across the country, only a small percentage have been affected, because there are a lot of deer out there. Nonetheless, the CDC does say that “in several locations where the disease is established, infection rates may exceed 10 percent (1 in 10), and localized infection rates of more than 25 percent (1 in 4) have been reported.”
Of course, it’s likely that CWD has spread further than realized, because deer aren’t great at seeing the doctor and reporting their symptoms. In fact, the CDC relates that infection rates among captive deer have been as high as 79%. In the deer version of Homer Simpson’s expression, doe!
Nearly a year has passed since I last wrote about CWD, and the disease is far from under control. Don’t write this off and say, “oh, that’s a deer thing.” It’s not even just a hunting thing either. Having such a severe disease continue to spread through an animal population does raise concern. Plus, deer play important roles in the ecosystem and food chain. Anything that affects them will affect whatever eats them and whatever they happen to eat and carry. And I’m not talking about a sleigh.