First came “Mad Cow” Mania. Throughout the 1990s, television and newspaper reports saturated us with information about this strange and frightening disease, more properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Before long, a form of mass panic set in. Throughout Europe, millions of healthy animals were slaughtered as a “preventive” measure. The images of gigantic “burn piles” on which animal bodies were dumped are hellish and haunting. (For more information about BSE, see “Beef’s Last Stand.”)
Are we now in the grip of “Mad Deer” Malaise? Increasingly, the media are talking about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a condition primarily affecting North American cervids (deer and elk). Although relatively few animals have contracted CWD, many more are at risk, in large part from state-sponsored culling programs. As with BSE, the government’s “cure” may be worse than the disease. Already, several thousand healthy animals have been killed in what are likely futile attempts to stop further CWD transmission.
Industries that exploit animals appear to play a key role in the spread of deadly diseases. Conditions on captive animal facilities, such as game farms and research pens, lend themselves to transmission. For animal advocates, CWD represents both a threat and an opportunity. Millions of animals could fall victim to preemptive slaughter. At the same time, the spread of CWD and similar diseases offers the chance for positive change by raising questions about the wisdom and morality of keeping animals in confinement for human gain.
The ABCs of TSEs
Both “Mad Cow” and CWD, along with scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, belong to a group of conditions called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs. Collectively known as “wasting” diseases, TSEs are invariably fatal, and have no known cure. Although some controversy exists about the precise nature of TSEs, many scientists believe that abnormal proteins, known as prions, eat holes in the brains of infected animals, leading to their demise. Early outward signs of illness include wasting and excessive thirst, followed by end-stage neurological symptoms such as staggering, circling, and dazed facial expressions — thus, the term “mad.”
Scientists know little about the origins and transmission of CWD and other TSEs. Evidence suggests that the trouble began when a sheep disease, scrapie, was transmitted to other animals, and subsequently mutated into a number of different ailments. Research into “Mad Cow” further supports the notion that the disease spreads through animal-to-animal contact, as well as through infected feed and environmental contamination. In the cattle industry, it is not uncommon for animals to be kept in cramped, dirty quarters, where frequent contact with saliva, urine, and feces is unavoidable. The cannibalistic practice of feeding beef by-products to cattle is also believed to have led to widespread infection, as cows fed on the remains of their BSE-infected brethren. (Despite restrictions against the use of meat and bone meal in feed for ruminant animals, it is believed that lax oversight still allows contaminated body parts to find their way into the livestock food chain.)
CWD appears to have its origins in captive animal facilities in Colorado; the trucking of animals to game farms then facilitated spread of the disease. Most cases of CWD have been found in deer and elk in the western United States and, increasingly, in the Midwest. The primary victims are animals held captive on game farms and their wild counterparts living nearby. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of October 2002, the disease was known to exist in eleven states (Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) and two Canadian provinces (Alberta and Saskatchewan).
Mysterious and Tenacious
For many people, the bottom line is: Will I get sick? They fear that the consumption of CWD-contaminated meat may lead to disease in humans, in much the same way BSE is associated with a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob that killed more than 100 people in Britain in the 1990s. No current evidence suggests that CWD is transmissible along normal routes to humans, or to domestic animals other than deer or elk. Laboratory tests, however, indicate a species barrier that is resistant, but not impermeable. Through direct inoculation, scientists have managed to “successfully” transmit CWD to species including ferrets, mice, and cows. Even the Centers for Disease Control acknowledges that it cannot rule out all risk for a person eating CWD-infected animals.
In addition to a lack of concrete information about CWD, several other features of the disease render it difficult to manage. Like other TSEs, CWD has a long incubation period, followed by a rapid active phase. An apparently healthy animal may, in fact, have been transmitting the disease to others for years.
Current detection methods are inadequate. The few laboratories that are equipped to handle CWD diagnostics are seriously backlogged. In-the-field biopsies that work for deer cannot be used on elk. Although the race is on to develop a live animal test that is fast, accurate for each species, easily administrated in the field, and able to detect the disease in its early stages, this type of test for CWD is likely years away.
Further complicating control of CWD is the fact that it is a tenacious pathogen. Contaminated soil may stay infectious for ten years or longer. In the early days of the CWD outbreak, infected mule deer were kept on research pens in Colorado and Wyoming. After the animals were killed, the facilities were plowed, bleached, and allowed to remain empty for five years. When the pens were repopulated, however, the new animals also contracted CWD, illustrating the dangers of residual environmental contamination. Once an outbreak has occurred, a property may remain unsafe indefinitely.
States are scrambling to respond to the threat posed by CWD. Some are imposing new surveillance and testing programs for hunters, wildlife, and captive cervid game farms. Others have enacted laws banning the transport of cervids; the development of new game farms; and the practice of feeding and baiting animals, which can increase population densities and, therefore, the risk of disease transmission.
Unfortunately, the “remedy” that governments most frequently embrace is mass slaughter. In both Wisconsin and Colorado, for example, thousands of free-ranging deer living near captive animal facilities have been killed. Although Wisconsin had reported only 18 cases of CWD as of May 2002, the state’s containment program calls for the slaughter of 115,000 free-ranging deer in ever-expanding “eradication zones.”
Similarly, in Colorado, state agencies plan to respond to new cases of CWD by killing up to 50 percent of the deer in affected areas. Elk, too, are falling victim to CWD panic. Through federal “depopulation” buyout programs, 3,800 mostly healthy captive elk have been killed. In several states, entire herds were slaughtered, despite little or no evidence of CWD infection. Such was the case in Colorado, where postmortem tests revealed that 13 of 16 captive elk herds were, in fact, CWD-free. Across the country, burn piles are once again alight.
State slaughter programs come with a hefty price tag. In Wisconsin, legislators have set aside $22 million over the next five years for a CWD “management” program. Colorado’s program will cost at least $1.7 million this year. The tab for federal “culling” on captive elk farms exceeds $15 million. These are our taxes at work.
In Whose Interest?
The vast majority of cases of CWD have occurred in and around game farms, where animals are kept in captivity as “prey” for humans. In many affected states, captive cervids are raised to provide meat or antler velvet, or to serve as targets in canned hunts.
Scientists and wildlife agency staff think that the close confinement of animals on such farms increases the risk for CWD transmission. As illustration, they cite the case of a game farm in Nebraska, in which free-ranging deer were trapped behind a fence when a new captive facility was built. The deer then co-mingled with captive elk. Although researchers are unsure which animals were the hosts for the pathogen, within the confinement of the fenced facility, an alarming 51 percent of the deer tested positive for CWD. For those deer outside the fenced area, only 14 out of 100 tested positive.
Other CWD “hot spots” include areas of high wild cervid concentrations. Evidence suggests that supplemental feeding, a practice employed by some hunters to lure their “prey,” raises deer and elk populations to unnatural levels, thereby increasing the risk of transmission.
In states such as Colorado and Wisconsin, hunting revenues pump millions of dollars into the economy. It is estimated that hunters spend $500 million annually in Wisconsin, and $600 million in Colorado, where hunting-related expenditures, such as licenses, account for the bulk of the wildlife department’s budget. In some of Wisconsin’s 947 captive game farms, wealthy patrons may pay tens of thousands of dollars to participate in a “trophy” hunt, tracking down and killing an animal that has no chance to escape.
Afraid of a “mad cow”-type debacle, the media and politicians wring their hands about potential loss of income. It should come as no surprise, then, that efforts to combat CWD have focused more on placating hunters and tourists than on preserving the health of animals and ecosystems.
Animals Pay the Price
In many places, managing CWD has become synonymous with killing healthy deer and elk. Animal advocates are concerned that this “scorched earth” approach is largely driven by politics and panic, not good science. While the type of wholesale slaughter occurring in many states reduces population densities, little evidence indicates that the practice truly offers protection against the further spread of the disease.
In communities throughout the country, concerned citizens are writing letters, holding educational events, and speaking out against the killing of healthy animals, and are working to pass legislation that offers long-term solutions by addressing the root causes of diseases such as TSEs.
Although newly-implemented testing and monitoring programs have led to an increase in the number of reported cases of CWD, it is unclear how quickly the disease is actually spreading, or whether transmission rates are, in fact, stabilizing. Is the apparent “epidemic” spread of the disease more a function of expanded surveillance than a true health catastrophe? At this point, we simply don’t know for sure.
While the disease is now found far from its original endemic area, overall prevalence rates outside of this area remain at less than 5 percent in deer and 1 percent in elk. With few exceptions, CWD distribution in the wild follows the distribution of game farms. The potential of CWD to be spread via the transport of animals between such facilities, as well as from contact between wild and captive herds, remains a grave concern.
Despite the many questions that still surround CWD, API and other activist organizations believe that game farms present a clear danger to the animals penned within them and to wildlife nearby. In June 2002, Bruce Chesebro, a leading scientist at the NIH Rocky Mountains Lab, told the Denver Post, “People ask how this is spreading and I say by truck. It is being moved around in these game farms and it is leaking out into the wild. Until you close down these game farms, you can kill all the wildlife you want and it will not halt the spread of the disease.”
Thompson Hobbs, an ecologist at Colorado State University, stressed a similar point to the Boulder Daily Camera in June 2002. “Imagine a box of marbles all of them white, but one black one representing a diseased animal. If there are a lot of marbles in the box, the black one will bump into the white ones relatively frequently. Fewer marbles mean fewer disease spreading collisions. If you think of every contact as the potential for disease transmission, you can see why higher density means higher infection rates.”
Other species pay the price as well in the many CWD research studies that involve injecting healthy animals with the disease. Mice, ferrets, raccoons, elk, orphaned fawns, cattle, and non-human primates represent the unheard victims of this epidemic. In their race to discover reliable detection tests and vaccines, and in the push to learn more about cross-species transmission, scientists across the country experiment on hundreds of living creatures that suffer and die.
Advocates in Action
Clearly, the mass slaughter of healthy animals, whether in the lab or on the range, is not a long-term solution to the problem of CWD. Any truly effective management plan must take into consideration the role of human industry and activity in the spread of TSEs.
The correlation between animal density and disease raises the obvious question of whether, for both ethical and health reasons, we should hold wild animals in captivity at all. A humane alternative to the widespread killing would be to stop the practice of confining cervids on game farms, where they are deprived of their natural behaviors, abused for commercial profit, and hunted for “sport” in tiny enclosures. Prohibitions on the baiting and feeding of wild populations could also reduce risk of transmission.
A growing number of states are taking proactive legislative action to respond to the threat CWD poses to both human and non-human animals. Twenty-five states as well as Canada have adopted emergency rules calling for temporary or permanent restrictions on the import of captive cervids. Voters in Montana recently passed a citizens’ initiative banning the development of new captive game farms. A citizens’ group in Oregon is considering putting forward a similar ballot initiative in 2004, while activists in Wisconsin and Colorado are working toward ending the industry in their states, as well.
API is a member of the Oregon-based MADelk (Measure Against the Domestication of Elk) Coalition, and encourages concerned people to visit the organization's website at www.madelk.org to learn more about CWD. State wildlife departments are also a useful source of information.
In communities across the country, grassroots efforts are taking shape that advocate management based on prevention, rather than slaughter; that question the practice of exploiting animals for human entertainment and profit; and that educate the public about the root causes of diseases such as CWD and “Mad Cow.” As CWD continues to spread, so does the opportunity to take action — and perhaps to make substantial differences in the lives of animals.
A Brief History of Chronic Wasting Disease
- 1967: Disease first identified in mule deer “wasting away” in a Colorado State University research facility. Domestic sheep, some of who were believed to be infected with scrapie, were also confined on site.
- 1974 to 1980: An unknown number of mule deer from contaminated pens in Colorado and Wyoming research facilities are released back into the wild.
- 1981: The first known case of CWD in wild elk is reported in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.
- 1977 to 1996: CWD remains confined within the original endemic area of northeastern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming, and southwestern Nebraska.
- 1996: An elk farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, reports discovering CWD in an animal imported from the U.S.
- 1997 to 2002: Testing and surveillance programs increase. CWD is found on game farms in eight states (South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
- 2001: Wisconsin becomes the first state east of the Mississippi to identify CWD in its wild cervids.
- 2002: CWD continues to be detected far beyond the original endemic area. An October 2002 discovery in Illinois brings to seven the number of states in which CWD has been identified in free ranging deer and elk.
Cruel and Unusual: Behind Elk Farm Fences
Commercialization of Native Wildlife
- In their natural habitat, elk may forage up to 50 miles; in captivity they can be confined on farms as small as one acre.
- Elk on farms cannot follow their natural migratory behavior, and are forced into artificial herd formations driven by market conditions, not biological or environmental need.
- Instead of a diet based on foraging and seasonal variety, captive elk are fed pellets made up of ground road-killed deer and other animal parts.
Captive Trophy Hunting
- Hunters commonly pay $20,000 to kill tame, penned animals.
- When bull elk on farms develop antler racks, they become “shooter bulls,” shipped to ranches as targets for “trophy” hunts.
- In some canned hunts, customers drive up to a mesh-enclosed firing area, pick their target, and kill — all without leaving their vehicles.
Velvet Antler Market
- Elk antlers are ground into medicine and aphrodisiacs for Asian markets. Blood-engorged antlers are sawed off without the use of anesthesia, which is rumored to reduce medicinal potency.
- “Harvesting” velvet may involve immobilizing a captive bull elk by placing a clamp around the animal’s lip and another around the bare skin of his anus, and sending a paralyzing current of electricity through his body.