Are Deer Safe To Eat?

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It has been ten years since a “hunter-terrorist” ruined deer season in Wisconsin. In the fall of 2004, instead of shooting deer, Chai Vang, a Hmong immigrant from Laos, shot and killed hunters. Eight hunters were shot in northern Wisconsin, six of whom died, including a father and son. No clear motive for the murders became apparent but Vang, a hunting enthusiast, was tried, convicted and sentenced to six consecutive life terms plus seventy years.

Vang’s rampage was especially disturbing because Wisconsin was just pulling out of an epidemic of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in its deer and elk, a fatal disease similar to Mad Cow. State officials assured residents they couldn’t get the fatal human brain disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) if they avoided the deer’s “brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen or lymph nodes” and if they wore latex gloves. But there were two medical reports that suggested otherwise: A 2002 CDC report titled “Fatal Degenerative Neurologic Illnesses in Men Who Participated in Wild Game Feasts-Wisconsin, 2002.” And an Archives of Neurology report called “Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease In Unusually Young Patients Who Consumed Venison.”

grazing deer
Grazing Deer

As headless deer waited in trailers in Wisconsin to be tested for CWD before people would eat them, the traditional venison burgers given out on the first day of deer hunting season became problematical. Even if a hunter’s own deer was disease free, “if the hunter has the deer processed, does that processor sterilize its equipment after each deer is cut up so cross contamination does not occur?” asked one Wisconsin deer hunter in the Capital Times. When his buck turned out to be positive for CWD, another hunter wanted to know about the risks to his wife who had washed his hunting clothes and from blood which had gotten on his steering wheel.

The CWD scare also caused a PR problem for hunters and hunter groups who did not want to eat what they killed. Some food pantries refused deer meat. Others gave homeless and hungry patrons informed consent fliers which told them the meat was probably fine but there was a slight chance it would kill them. Suddenly hunter “generosity” looked malevolent.

Even if this year’s deer are fine to eat (though the CWD incubation period is decades) many young hunters are saying “no thanks” to the sport of their fathers and grandfathers. Web-based activities are much more fun and a better way to meet girls, they say. But DNR officials worry about the loss of their primary funding – hunters. The state exhortation to “thin the herd” is belied by the hundreds of state-registered deer breeding operations.

“Overpopulation” is good for business – why else would the state support deer breeding and fight a disease that thins the herd?

The number of US hunters is dropping about 10 percent a year. Hunting groups are especially concerned about the dip in young hunters, aged 16 to 24, whose numbers fell by 300,000 from 1996 to 2006, according to the Wildlife Service.

“For every 100 hunters who retire, only 62 take up the sport,” warned former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell at the Pitcairn-Monroeville Rod and Gun Club in Allegheny County a few years ago. “If this trend continues, our ability to manage wildlife will be severely affected and Pennsylvania’s economy will suffer.” Maybe manage should be in quotes.

“The single biggest challenge facing our two wildlife agencies in Pennsylvania is money. Or lack thereof,” agreed Dale Machesic, outdoors reporter in a column for the Philadelphia suburban paper, the Intelligencer. “The single biggest obligation to all fishing and hunting enthusiasts is to get kids involved.”

Wisconsin lost 45,000 hunters from just 2000 to 2007, during its battle with CWD and Vang’s sniping and afterwards. How many will take to the fields this year? And how many will eat their deer?

Martha Rosenberg is the Investigative Health Correspondent for NewsBlaze. Martha illustrates many of her stories with relevant cartoons. She was staff cartoonist at Evanston Roundtable.