Many leery of venison

September 4, 2002 The Guardian (London) by James Meikle
One of the first indicators of how chronic wasting disease has affected the state's psyche shows that more than 60% of people who have eaten Wisconsin venison in the last five years are unlikely to eat the game now.

A poll conducted for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week found that of 305 people who reported eating venison, 31.9% said they were less likely to eat Wisconsin venison now and 29.5% said they definitely wouldn't eat it. Women felt stronger than men; 40.5% said they definitely wouldn't eat venison, compared with 21% for men.

"I love it; our whole family does," said Dean Tessenske, who lives on Lake Nokomis near Tomahawk. "It's just very, very tasty -- a treat -- but not enough of a treat to take a chance anymore." When taking into account all poll participants, even those who had not eaten venison, the number of people saying they are unlikely to eat Wisconsin venison grew to 75.1%, with 50.6% saying they definitely wouldn't eat it. Again, women felt stronger; 82.7% of women said they definitely wouldn't eat venison, compared with 66.9% for men.

One of the women, Jane Singers of Milwaukee, said she never liked the taste of the wild game. Giving up venison won't be a sacrifice for her at all. It will, however, take an occasional treat away from her husband, David.

"He's decided he's not going to eat it now because of that" chronic wasting disease, Singers said.

The questions about chronic wasting disease and how it has affected residents' taste for Wisconsin venison were part of a random statewide telephone poll conducted by The Dieringer Research Group, based in Milwaukee.

Roughly 80% of the 525 respondents registered some degree of concern about the disease spreading into the state's deer herd. Nearly one-quarter considered themselves "very concerned."

"I think economically it's going to be a huge issue," said Karen Kain of Neenah. "This is the time of year when the northern part of the state depends on hunters for tourism dollars, and some of the places up there, they might have a really rough year."

The disease first appeared in Wisconsin in February, and so far has been found only in south-central Wisconsin. But concern can be found across the state.

"I get worried for people like my grandfather, who does hunt and eats venison on a regular basis," said Lara Meier, a homemaker and non-hunter from Racine. "It makes me nervous. My grandpa hunts a lot and he eats deer a lot. Who knows what it could cause in people?"

Care in butchering

So far, there's no direct evidence that humans can get sick from eating deer infected with chronic wasting disease, which is similar to mad cow disease. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns people not to eat meat from infected animals, and the World Health Organization advises people not to eat the brain, tonsils, spinal cord or lymph nodes of deer.

In addition, state health officials are investigating the deaths of three men who shared wild game feasts in Barron County, which was first reported in the Journal Sentinel.

William Fletcher of Beaver Dam said avoiding the potentially infected parts of a deer is simple.

"The portion of the carcass that's infected, we just throw it away anyway," said Fletcher, 82. "The rest of the meat is good, that's myopinion."

Fletcher, who no longer hunts, said he would gladly eat any venison his hunting friends and relatives pass on to him.

Phil Maufort would do the same.

"I think the only thing is, I would like to know who butchered it and how it was butchered," Maufort said. "A lot of people I know do their own, and I trust them. If they're going to be eating it themselves and for their families, they might take more precautions than a butcher might."

Maufort, 45, of De Pere, said he hunted for years but quit when the woods became too crowded with inexperienced "idiots" and "amateurs."

The die-hard hunters, including many of his friends, probably won't be dissuaded from taking part in the hunt or eating deer that they kill, Maufort said.

License sales down

In another sign that worries about the disease are resonating in Wisconsin and beyond, sales of deer hunting licenses in the state are lagging.

Total sales in the license categories that include deer hunting, both gun and bow, are down 16.6% from the same time in 2001, according to statistics from the state Department of Natural Resources.

Through Aug. 19, the DNR had sold 241,591 licenses that covered deer hunting, compared with 289,692 on the same date last year. Licenses specifically for Wisconsin residents who hunt deer during the gun season showed an even more significant decline, running 30% behind last year's pace, the DNR reported.

Any decrease in hunting licenses could have a dramatic impact on the amount of money the state wildlife managers have for programs and education in future years. The DNR took in more than $60 million in 2001 through the sale of deer hunting licenses to nearly 700,000 hunters who use guns.

Just how many hunters ultimately are dissuaded by the threat of chronic wasting disease will be determined in November. More than 30% of the deer hunting licenses sold in 2001 were purchased in the week before the gun hunting season started.

"There's no doubt in my mind there's a lot of folks trying to make up their minds right now," said Tom Hauge, wildlife director of the DNR. "I'm not concerned at this point in time at all."

Tessenske already has decided he won't be a part of the hunt this year.

In years past, he and his wife hunted with bows. They haven't participated for a while but had thought about getting back into the sport in retirement. With chronic wasting disease infecting the herd, even in small numbers, Tessenske has lost his appetite for the meat and the hunt.

At a gathering for the opening of fishing season, Tessenske said the venison brought by a friend went untouched, even though the group included mostly outdoorsmen and wild game eaters.

Dwight Clough of Sun Prairie takes the same view. The venison in his freezer will be thrown out, and he will graciously decline any offers from friends who will be hunting this year.

"I don't want to be the first one and I don't want anyone in my family to be the first one to find out that there's a danger," Clough said. "Why take chances?"

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