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Hunters to help keep 'zombie deer disease' from reaching Florida by donating animal's heads

CRONIC WASTING DISEaSE   NYS GOVernment.jfif
The state of New York
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The New York State Health Department
This deer family was being monitored for possible exposure to chronic wasting disease in New York State in this file photo

To prevent a disease from spreading into Florida that causes white-tailed deer to waste away until they die, state wildlife managers are asking hunters in Collier, Lee, DeSoto, and Hendry counties to donate the heads of deer they have killed for testing.

The only reliable method for diagnosing chronic wasting disease is to test the brain stem tissue or lymph nodes from dead deer, making the involvement of hunters vitally important. Hunters are being taught how to remove trophy antlers while preserving the sample, and gift packages worth $1,000 can be won in the Fish & Wildlife Foundation's CWD Monitoring Sweepstakes.

Not well known out of the insular world of cervid farming, chronic wasting disease has Florida wildlife managers extremely concerned. They are working with other state and federal agencies, and private nonprofit wildlife protection groups across the state to prevent the spread of disease. There is little doubt it would decimate Florida’s deer population.

Chronic wasting disease is called “zombie deer disease” due to the appearance of the animals as they lose weight, become confused and disheveled, and lose their fear of humans. The disease has been detected in the wild in 29 states and four Canadian provinces.

It is contagious, always fatal, and can be a particularly brutal way for the animals to die.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic wasting disease may have an incubation period of over a year and neurological signs may develop slowly. Some animals don’t show any symptoms until the very end.

There is no treatment and no vaccine.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is focused on keeping the state’s deer population away from the disease. Starting in 2002, the agency has put an increasing number of prohibitions on the importation of deer or deer parts into Florida.

“FWC has prioritized efforts over the past two decades to do all that we can to prevent CWD in Florida,” said Eric Sutton, executive director of the agency. “The latest initiatives solidify our commitment to keep white-tailed deer healthy in the Sunshine State.”

The World Health Organization in 1997 started to emphasize the importance of keeping the contagion for zombie deer disease from entering the human food chain.

The Centers for Disease Control says there have been no reported cases of the disease in people. However, the agency said some studies suggest there is a possibility it could jump to humans through primates, who in certain parts of the world, eat meat from wasting disease-infected animals, which in addition to white-tailed deer include elk, moose, and mule deer.

Chronic wasting disease was first recognized in 1967 in mule deer in a wildlife research facility in northern Colorado. It was identified as a “transmissible spongiform encephalopathy,” which is a progressive and fatal condition affecting the brain and nervous system of many animals including humans, cattle, and sheep in 1978. However, there is no known relationship between chronic wasting disease in cervids and unrelated animals or people.

In the mid-1980s, the wasting disease was first detected in free-ranging deer and elk in contiguous portions of northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. Since 2001, the wasting disease has been found in free-ranging cervid populations states mostly in the North, West, and Midwest, but it’s been detected as far east as New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The closest states to Florida where the disease has been found are Alabama, albeit in the northwest corner, followed by Texas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees a herd certification program to control and prevent the spread of the disease in farmed deer, elk, moose, and caribou. The program includes requirements for fencing, keeping track of the animals, and testing before herds can be mixed with others.

The disease is complex and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has created a five-minute, animated video to break down what causes it, how it’s transmitted, why it’s one of the most serious wildlife diseases, and how the state wildlife agency and others are working to prevent the disease from spreading into Florida.

Several nonprofit wildlife groups helped pay for the video and other education efforts, including Wildlife Alert, where people who report wildlife and boating violations can earn rewards up to $1,000. In addition, the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida also supported chronic wasting disease education efforts through grant money from the sale of its specialty license plate.

“Preventing the spread of chronic wasting disease into Florida is a priority for the foundation,” said Andrew Walker, president and CEO of the nonprofit. “We could not think of a better use for our deer plate funds than partnering with FWC on this effort.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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