This one comes to you, in part, by the numerous calls and questions that I have had presented to me since practically last January. Not that I am an authority on the subject by any means, even though one of my very best friends passed away from the disease that occurs in humans that I am about to refer to. However, I have read extensively about this topic so I do feel somewhat comfortable in having dialogue with another party. As a sportsman, you may already have a feel for where I am heading, and for those that aren’t, I am referring to the recent confirmations in Mississippi of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in whitetail deer.
Chronic wasting disease is a member of a family of diseases in a group known as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that affects deer, elk, and other cervids (hoofed ruminant mammals). A prion, an abnormal protein, is the causal agent of this disease. In cattle this disease is known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow. In sheep it is known as scrapie and in humans it is referred to as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Though there are barriers that separate these individual diseases apart, I will collectively refer to them in the group, TSEs.
CWD was first recognized in 1978 as a “wasting” syndrome in a captive mule deer in a wildlife research facility in Northern Colorado. This disease has since spread to both free-ranging and captive populations of deer and elk in numerous states in the U.S. and several Canadian provinces. This prion will “pinhole” the brain of the infected mammal and progressively the subject will show clinical signs of difficulties in movement, emaciation, staggering, and behavioral changes. Ultimately, this disease is always fatal.
The concern of this disease being able to be transferred from infected animals to humans has spread like California wildfires. I repeat, the “concern” has spread, not the disease itself. There are numerous opinions on the subject of whether or not this disease can be transmitted to humans from consuming meat from an infected animal. In regard to the risk to humans contracting this disease by the consumption of deer, elk, or moose, I am not aware of any reports that confirm this. Of course you have all heard and read about the possibility of contracting BSE from the consumption of beef from an infected animal. It is important to clarify the differences between infection from a variation of Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD) and classic CJD. Now I know this becomes quite confusing and can lead to alarm but realize the incidence of this disease occurs at the rate of one to two cases per one million people throughout the world. So statistically speaking, we are not in a high risk category.
So back to our whitetail, what is really going on with this disease and why is this showing up in our state. My personal opinion is that it has been here for quite some time and perhaps millions of years. These prions are naturally occurring and we are getting better at detecting everything. Years ago I heard my grandfather refer to a September gale that took his crop. Of course he was referring to a hurricane but he had no means of a confirmation by a local news channel or the weather channel. He didn’t even have a television or electricity. Have you ever heard the ole adage, if you look for trouble you’ll find it? I think this can apply to CWD and many other disorders for that matter. If there was a diagnosis for ADD when I was in school, I would have been the poster child. Now every kid I know is diagnosed with it if they are active and rowdy. Regarding CWD, we are probably just more aware of what to look for and our technology is better for confirming it.
The question now becomes, is there anything we can do to help prevent this or manage the issue? There are already laws in place not to transport the carcass or the head and cape across state lines from game harvested in other states. Will this help? I don’t know the answer but much more knowledgeable people than I must think so to enact these restrictions. In the back of my tiny brain I still go back to these pen-raised animals and the confinement of them. Deep down in my soul I wonder if there is a message being sent, as subtle as it may be, not to manipulate and modify Mother Nature. Now I understand that this syndrome has been manifested in untouched wild herds but I keep coming back to human manipulation and what we do, either intentional or not. I am sure you are picking up what I am putting down.
You are probably asking yourself if I am concerned enough about the topic that will prevent me from consuming the delicious fried tenderloin or smoked sausage that this wonderful game animal provides. Emphatically, let me say that without reservation, I will continue to welcome fresh venison into my freezer. Conditionally however, I will do my own butchering and processing so I will be able to ensure that guidelines are followed as set by those that instruct us on how to care for our table fare. I will bone out the meat and not cut through bone and I will use gloves to protect myself. In my opinion, nothing is as healthy as wild, nature grown protein. Whether it’s backstrap from the swamp or barbecued shoulder from the hill country of Texas, venison is a delicacy that is to be enjoyed and savored. Sure, we must do everything we can to keep all of our food as healthy as possible and this not only includes our wild game but our produce from ranches and farms which also includes our vegetables. Be aware of risks but also don’t live in a bubble. Without fried tenderloin and hot biscuits with gravy, a big part of our experience from afield will be lost.
Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it.