It’s happening on commercial deer farms in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Hundreds of captive deer stricken with the dreaded chronic wasting disease (CWD) are being euthanized. As state Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) try to contain the lethal, incurable disease which threatens their all important hunting revenues, cattle farmers now worry the disease will “jump species.” Deer on 11 farms in Wisconsin, alone, have been annihilated.
CWD, which is similar to mad cow disease (BSE), is caused by microscopic “prions” which are not inactivated by cooking, heat, autoclaves, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, phenol, lye, formaldehyde or radiation. They remain in the soil indefinitely. In humans the disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.
Deer breeding and “trophy farms” are a $4 billion a year industry. Farmers operate canned “hunts” in which bucks with trophy antlers can fetch prices in six figures. Deer farm operators also sell antlers, velvet, urine and meat.
But captive deer operations are also a main source of CWD due to their concentration of animals, “communicability window” (from trophy stock trading and escaped animals) and questionable feed sources. The Indiana Star, in a four-part expose, exposes how “the pursuit of deer bred for enormous antlers and shot in hunting pens” on trophy farms is spreading CWD at an alarming rate.
Some ask why the disease spreading-farms are paid for each deer euthanized with our tax dollars and sometimes left to continue their operations despite incubating the disease. In one case, the Wisconsin DNR bought a site heavily contaminated with CWD for $465,000. Deer farmers in Iowa have been paid more than $900,000 by the USDA for lost deer.
More than a decade ago, Wisconsin endured a kind of deer holocaust. CWD descended upon its deer population with such vengeance, 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; if not, they were too dangerous to even put in a landfill. Officials declared “CWD eradication” zones in which fauns and does would be killed before bucks.
At the peak of the epidemic, hunters “donated” the possibly lethal meat to food pantries with a warning attached. Some pantries refused the donation of meat that hunters were afraid to eat themselves.
It is the official position of deer hunting-dependent DNRs that venison will not transmit the dread human disease CJD. Yet in 2002, the government reported just that. “Fatal Degenerative Neurologic Illnesses in Men Who Participated in Wild Game Feasts,” was the name of a CDC report. Late last year a deer hunter died of CJD in North Dakota.
To reduce their CWD risk, DNRs warn hunters to wear surgical gloves when cutting up deer and to avoid exposing open cuts or sores on their hands. They tell hunters not to eat a deer’s brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen and lymph nodes but scientific articles say that muscle, blood, fat and other parts of the animal also contain prions including kidneys, pancreas, liver, saliva and antler velvet.
Even if deer meat is CWD free, there are cross-contamination risks since deer processors do not usually sterilize their equipment after each deer. And how far do these risks reach? One hunter wrote his local paper that after his buck tested positive for CWD he was worried about the blood on his steering wheel and hunting clothes to which his wife was exposed.
Like mad cow disease, widely believed to stem from the cost-cutting practice of feeding cows to cows, CWD may 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. The CWD in the deer may have been caused by sheep held at the same facility which had scrapie, say researchers.
In addition to incubators of CWD, deer farms are unethical. Fenced hunting violates the “fair chase” doctrine—”that deer and hunters are fairly matched. Hunters may have weapons, but deer have speed and keen senses,” writes wildlife expert Scott Shalaway. “Deer farms that permit hunting inside fenced-in areas violate this premise. When a deer gets to the fence, whether the enclosure is 40 acres or 1,000 acres, the chase is over. Such hunts appeal to hunters with too little time and skill and too much money.”
Nor are deer livestock, many point out, but belong to the people of the state under the Public Trust Doctrine.
Martha Rosenberg is a nationally recognized investigative health reporter whose food and drug expose, “Born with a Junk Food Deficiency,” won an American Society of Journalists and Authors honorable mention. Rosenberg has appeared on CSPAN, National Public Radio and lectured at the medical school and university levels.