Chronic wasting disease—the hidden story—Part II

Chronic wasting disease—the hidden story—Part II


In whose interest?

“The vast majority of cases of chronic wasting disease (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.

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, further explained the greater risk in captive and high density populations 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 transmissions, 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-of victims of this epidemic.

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. Twenty-five states as well as Canada have adopted emergency rules calling for either temporary or permanent restrictions on the import of captive cervids. Voters in Minnesota 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 game farm 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 Web site at 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.”

Note: The preceding article is largely excerpted from the Winter 2002 issue of Animal Issues, the publication of the Animal Protection Institute, P.O. Box 22505, Sacramento, CA 95822. More information is available at Our thanks to API for permission to share this information.

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