Chronic Wasting Disease, also known as "zombie deer disease," has been documented within 80 miles of Kentucky's western border, prompting a containment plan worthy of any zombie film, especially given that CWD can be spread to other animals, including primates and potentially humans, according to the Center for Disease Control.
CWD is a contagious neurological disease affecting cervids (members of the deer family). It causes spongy degeneration of the brain resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and eventually death.
Confirmed cases of the disease have been documented in 26 states, including Missouri and Tennessee, four Canadian provinces as well as the country of Norway. Thus far, the disease has not spread into Kentucky and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife hope to keep it that way, said Chris Garland, acting wildlife division director.
"We hope we never get it, there are just too many variables to predict," he said. "We are testing now to the level that we can with staffing and budget. We follow a risk-based model where we look at counties close to these areas close to the state line and other risk factors. The higher the risk, the more samples we take. We are looking at increasing that."
One step that the department has taken is tightening the carcass-laws for hunters bringing deer over state-lines, said Kevin Kelly, department spokesperson.
"It is illegal right now if you are hunting out of state to bring back a carcass of any member of the deer family," he said. "You can bring in bone-in or deboned meat, antlers, antlers attached to a clean skull plate, a clean skull, the finished taxidermy product and the hide. They are not allowed to bring back any semblance of brain matter or any of the spinal column, from any state."
Aside from the restrictions, both Garland and Kelly have been working with other states that have experienced the trials of CWD spreading, as well as federal agencies, and have been on a statewide informational CWD tour to educate Kentuckians, Garland said.
"Kevin and I went to Wisconsin for a CWD meeting with 13 other states, all of which, other than Indiana and Kentucky, had detected it," he said. "The goal was to discuss responses and what has worked and hasn't and try to get consistency with other states in terms of prevention and standardization in testing methods. No one wants this disease in their state and the ones that have it want to minimize it the best that they can.
"We are coming off of four months where we have held public forums about the disease across the state to try and educate people that may not be as familiar. We are definitely working to get the word out and are working with other agencies like the Department of Public Health and the Department of Agriculture. We anticipate that will remain the case as we go forward."
While there haven't been any documented human cases, yet, there are concerns about the roughly 7,000 to 15,000 diseased cervids eaten in the United States each year, with that number expected to increase as high as 20% annually, according to the Alliance for Public Wildlife.
To lessen the potential, the department urges anyone hunting or coming into contact any sick animal to report it immediately, Garland said.
"We encourage people to take precautions when dressing the animal and generally take as many precautions as they can," he said. "If they harvest a deer that looks sick in any way, they should contact the department so we can test it. In many of those affected states, they have avenues for testing to happen before consumption. That is what we would encourage. In the event that we document cases in Kentucky, we will have locations for them to drop the heads off for testing."
For more information on the disease or to report a potentially afflicted animal, call 1-800-858-1549 or 1-800-253-5378 during non-business hours.
Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, firstname.lastname@example.org