“Zombie” deer roam 227 counties across 24 states in the U.S., sickened by a neurodegenerative disease that reduces them to stumbling, drooling creatures.
So far, Indiana has evaded the infection known as chronic wasting disease (CWD) — and state wildlife officials plan to keep it that way. However, surveillance areas have been set up in counties as near as Pulaski to keep a close eye on deer populations in the area.
During deer hunting season, Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) encourages hunters to stay informed about deer diseases and best practices for handling any carcass or other raw meat.
CWD is a serious neurological disease affecting white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. It is a member of a group of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), or prion diseases. CWD is fatal in these species.
CWD is spread through bodily fluids like feces, saliva, blood or urine. CWD is transmitted either through direct contact or indirectly through environmental contamination of soil, plants, food or water. CWD is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep.
The symptoms of CWD reduce infected animals to zombie-like creatures: stumbling, drooling, and drastic weight loss. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they can also become more aggressive and less afraid of humans.
CWD can incubate for more than a year before animals present symptoms. While there’s a low risk of transmission to humans, the CDC warns hunters that the species barrier may not fully protect them from contracting the disease.
Although it has been associated with captive deer and elk in the past, CWD is also found in free-ranging white-tailed deer in several Midwestern states close to Indiana, including Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Each year, Indiana DNR biologists and staff at DNR fish and wildlife areas collect tissue samples from hunter-harvested and road-killed deer for CWD testing. Samples are collected from across the state to monitor the presence of CWD in Indiana. To date, the disease has not been detected in deer tested in Indiana.
Indiana DNR is conducting targeted CWD surveillance in northwest and northeast Indiana during the 2019-2020 deer hunting season. The DNR requests voluntary assistance from hunters in this effort. Participants will receive a commemorative Deer Management Partner magnet and a metal tag reminiscent of historic confirmation tags as tokens of appreciation.
In northwest Indiana, surveillance areas include Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Newton, Porter, Pulaski and Starke counties.
Hunters from Indiana who hunt out of state and have a deer carcass that has tested positive for CWD should call Indiana’s Deer Hotline at 812-334-3795 to discuss disposal options. To learn more about CWD and CWD surveillance, see on.IN.gov/CWD.
Regardless of the harvest, hunters and trappers should adhere to the following best practices when field-dressing or handling any carcass or other raw meat: wear disposable gloves; always wash your hands afterward; clean and disinfect instruments after use; don’t handle or consume wild animals that appear sick or act abnormal; cook meat thoroughly; and minimize contact with brain or spinal tissues.