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Deer hunting; Be neither foolhardy nor full of fear

September 21, 2002 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum might want to be a bit more careful. His stunt of taking up the bow last weekend to hunt deer nominates him for a possible John Gummer award.

Gummer was the British minister of agriculture who was famously photographed in 1990 chomping on hamburgers with his 4-year-old daughter, Cordelia. Gummer was trying to convince Brits that beef was "absolutely safe," and that they could continue enjoying their Yorkshire pudd and Sunday joint without fear of contracting a human cousin of mad cow disease. Gummer the beef eater ended up eating his words. He was wrong, and quite a few of Her Majesty's subjects were dead to prove it. McCallum's mission was the same as Gummer's. The Wisconsin governor sought to convince hunters that killing deer and consuming venison are safe activities, despite the presence of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin deer herds. His concern is understandable: In rural Wisconsin, as in Minnesota, hunting generates quite a lot of cash for the local economy, and any severe drop in the number of hunters taking to the field can have quite a negative impact.

There's just one problem with McCallum's theatrics: Given the presence of chronic wasting, McCallum doesn't really know that handling deer carcasses and eating venison are entirely safe. It most likely is safe, but no one knows at this point, and no one should sugarcoat that truth.

So what's a hunter to do? For starters, realize that you will have to make your own decision, and that it will involve quite a bit of judgment. Understand what is known and what is not known about the disease, and how to interpret both. For example, as late as 1996, the World Health Organization still was saying that no proved link existed between mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans. Now the WHO says no scientific link has been established between chronic wasting disease and CJD in humans. That's reassuring news, but it doesn't mean a link won't be found tomorrow.

Mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease and CJD are forms of spongiform encephalopathy, in which an almost indestructible, vicious little thing called a prion causes the brain to develop holes that make it look like Swiss cheese, with effects on behavior about what you'd expect, followed inevitably by death.

The human variant of the disease associated with mad cow apparently crossed the species line when people ate contaminated beef. The brain, spine and spleen are particularly capable of passing on the disease.

Chronic wasting has been found in several dozen Wisconsin deer in western Dane and eastern Iowa counties. The disease has not been found in Minnesota deer, but one elk on an Aitkin County farm died from the disease. About 100 deer from the area now are being killed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and sent to a laboratory for tests. Very little is known about the disease, particularly whether it, too, can pass from animals to humans.

Mad cow developed because British farmers were feeding their livestock food that contained ground-up parts of sheep that had died of scrapie, another spongiform encephalopathy disease. Once the use of scrapie-tainted animal food was removed, new cases of mad cow and ofCJD began to subside.

But chronic wasting occurs naturally in elk and deer, which means it may be here to stay. That may actually turn out to be good news; scrapie, after all, has been around for centuries and had never shown an ability to jump the species barrier until offal from infected sheep was ground up and fed to normally herbivorous cows.

Perhaps, somehow, the cattle played a key intermediate role in equipping the prions to leap the species barrier. Perhaps people, wolves and others up the food chain from deer and elk have nothing to fear.

That would be good news, and there is preliminary epidemiological data to support it. Chronic wasting has been a big problem for years in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, but hunting has continued, and there is no sign of an increased incidence of CJD in humans in that region.

Moreover, a wide range of other species _ from rodents to cattle, sheep and moose _ have been exposed experimentally to chronic wasting and have failed to contract the disease, suggesting it does not jump most species barriers, at least not easily. Were it not for the surprising situation with mad cow in Europe, there'd be no reason to believe or even suspect chronic wasting might jump to human beings.

Researchers also make the point that Europeans, particularly the British, were exposed in massive numbers to mad cow, and yet a very small percentage eventually contracted CJD. That suggests it is not an easy disease to catch.

Gov. McCallum's expression of certainty is understandable. When hunters stay out of the woods, not only do local economies suffer, but so do the deer herds; they require culling to remain strong. If hundreds of thousands more deer survive hunting season in Minnesota and Wisconsin to compete for winter forage, the stage could be set for a large increase in vehicle-deer encounters on roadways, crop and landscaping damage, and a decline in overall deer-herd health. So it is natural that McCallum would want to counter fears he considers unfounded. It's just that he can't be sure he knows everything there is to know about chronic wasting disease.

Those who do decide to go ahead with a hunt this fall should take steps to reduce their risk _ by avoiding deer that appear ill and by following DNR instructions on how to butcher a deer safely.

Remember, too, that very few things qualify as "absolutely safe." For the moment, venison doesn't qualify as one of them. But then, hunting itself never did either.

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