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A friend once told me about a hunting trip she went on in northern Minnesota where she stumbled across a fresh deer carcass that was missing half of its front leg. Examining it closer, she noticed the leg looked like it had been severed above the mid-section joint, most likely by a handheld saw, then semi-healed over while the deer was still alive. The reason for why it died was unclear.

I’m not a hunter (is now a good time to mention I’m a vegetarian?), but I’ve always been fascinated by the stories my family and friends who do hunt tell. The spookier the better, which is why that severed leg story’s been stuck in my head for years. 

Lately, I’ve been even more interested in creepy hunting tales since learning about chronic wasting disease (CWD), an always-fatal neurological affliction that bores holes into the brains of hoofed animals like deer, elk, and moose. It has been detected across 31 U.S. states including Minnesota, where my friend found the deer with the missing leg. 

CWD is colloquially known as “zombie deer disease” because of the way it presents itself. After the disease is contracted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected animal or with CWD prions (an abnormal form of protein) in the environment, the animal begins to lose weight, becomes listless, stumbles, drools, and loses its fear of people. Eventually the animal dies, which can happen up to two full years after first getting sick, making it quite literally the walking dead. 

So far CWD poses no risk to humans, but scientists are still concerned about its potential threat. Mad cow disease – another highly-fatal prion illness – was transmitted to people through contaminated meat, according to the Center for Food Safety. The human variant is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. 

Human transmission isn’t the case for CWD – yet.

“We don’t have an idea yet how complete the species barrier is between chronic wasting disease and humans,” Dr. Krysten Schuler told me in a Zoom interview in early October. Schuler is a wildlife disease ecologist at Cornell University who studies CWD, and is an avid hunter herself. The species barrier she mentioned is a kind of biological roadblock that prevents disease from transmitting between species. 

“There’s a lot of work being done at the molecular level to try to figure out if that species barrier is complete or if it could cross [the species barrier] and be like mad cow,” Schuler said. 

Out of an abundance of caution, Schuler and other experts strongly advise that people who handle meat – meat processors, taxidermists, and hunters, for example – take adequate precautions, especially when working in an area with known CWD cases. 

These precautions include testing all meat harvested at local fish and wildlife agencies, throwing carcass waste in the trash instead of dumping it outdoors, and not using deer urine as a lure while hunting. Animals can spread CWD prions through their urine, feces, and saliva, and the prions can survive in the environment for years. Never move carcasses harvested in a CWD-positive area to a non-CWD area.

Infections that spread from animals to people (called zoonotic diseases) are actually extremely common, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just a few examples include HIV/AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), swine flu, and Covid-19. Some of these animal-borne diseases have yielded pandemic-level outcomes, which makes me a lot more wary about letting my dog lick my face (fine, I still let him do this). 

Some food and agriculture researchers argue that our current level of meat production increases human exposure to zoonotic diseases. Hunters are at higher risk because of their contact with wild animals, but much more significantly, factory farming increases the risk of illness to ranchers, farmers, meat packers and processors.

Cows packed together on a farm, for example, invites the spread of infectious disease between animals, and the live transport of livestock from farm to slaughterhouse can spread disease across a larger geographic area. The people who come in close contact with these animals risk being the first humans exposed to the next big illness. Meat corporations that have normalized cheap meat and lots of it have made a petri dish of disease in their farms and factories, and the animals and humans who live and work in these petri dishes pay the price.

I know I showed my hand too soon when I mentioned I’m a vegetarian earlier, but I promise I’m not arguing for a meatless society. Hunting and angling are some of the best ways to source meat, and these activities play an extremely important role in rural communities who base their years, and their menus, around hunting seasons. Nor am I arguing against farmed meat, another essential part of some rural communities that fuels the local economy and feeds the region.

But I am arguing against agriculture that is driven by a need for lots of cheap meat, because that stresses every part of the food production cycle, including the animals. And it’s a public health risk. 

Chronic wasting disease was first observed in a captive deer in Colorado in the 1960s. Since then, the disease has spread nearly every direction outside of Colorado to both captive and wild herds of hoofed animals. 

“A lot of times people want to point fingers at captive herds because there have been more frequent [CWD] detections in those herds,” Schuler said. But this could be because captive herds are easier to test for CWD than wild herds, making it look like there’s more cases where there’s not.

“Because CWD is sort of a multifactorial disease, we can’t just say, oh, well, it’s just the captive herds and if we deal with them, everything will go away,” Schuler continued. “We really need to think about moving wild deer [parts and carcasses.] It’s important for hunters to know the regulations if they’re traveling to go somewhere else to hunt… so they’re not accidentally introducing prions when they bring their harvest home.” The obligation to decrease the spread of CWD lies with everyone who comes in contact with these animals. 

The larger obligation to slow down our meat production? Well, about four names come to mind for whose responsibility that is. 

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