Weird Deer: The Beautiful and the Damned, Part 1

At Lake La Cygne in Kansas, my correspondent Dee Puett photographed some unusual deer. First, there's this mangy-looking doe:

The whole herd looked small, and many had scabs like the ones on this doe's face and neck. Dee fears that unhealthy appearance could be a sign of chronic wasting disease. Deer afflicted with CWD lose weight, develop odd neurological symptoms (like drooling and walking in circles), and eventually die.

CWD is one of an unusual group of diseases called “transmissible spongiform encephalopathies,” caused by prions. A prion is a molecule of a normal brain protein bent into an abnormal shape. In the central nervous system of a mammal, it converts its fellows to its own shape. These malcontent molecules stop doing their work and cause neurons to fracture and die. At an autopsy, the brain tissue of one so affected is spongy, full of cavities, as if blasted with birdshot.

It appears that most people are immune, or at least genetically inclined toward resistance. The rare infection is glacial, taking years or even decades to make itself apparent. Once it does manifest, the victim has only a few months to live. His nervous system will gradually fail. The first signs in humans are clumsiness, tremors, and slurred speech. Next may come bizarre laughter, mood swings, dementia, and uncontrollable movements, as if he were occasionally receiving an electric shock. Finally the body stops responding to the mind; incontinence, paralysis, coma, and—inevitably—death ensue.

Prions can occur because of a mutant gene, which may kill the possessor and his children. In another scenario, a person may spontaneously develop prion infection—a brief quirk of his biochemistry leads, years later, to his death. The third way to get a prion disease is by contamination: surgical instruments, grafts, and even human growth hormone have transmitted the infection from one human to another. The Fore people of New Guinea used to pass a spongiform disease called kuru by eating their own dead. (Among the world’s diverse cultures, cannibalism of one sort of another is not an especially unusual funerary practice.)

Eating other animals is another way to get infected. People have known scrapie, the prion disease of sheep and goats, for centuries, though it does not seem to pass directly to humans. But a change in rendering methods may have caused this infection to pass to cattle, where it manifested as the notorious mad cow disease, known to scientists as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Hundreds of thousands of domestic cattle fell to this disease in the 1980s and 90s; the practice of turning cattle organ meat into food for other cattle magnified the incidence of the otherwise rare disease. More than 130 cases passed from cattle to human consumers. In the human victims, this particular prion disease is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Various spongiform diseases have turned up in other animals—minks, deer, antelope, cats. So far, there is little to suggest that these pose any danger to humans. Some doctors have proposed that eating squirrel brains can cause a spongiform disease, but solid evidence of this has not yet appeared. The widespread occurrence of CWD in North America—it’s been found in a dozen US states and two Canadian provinces, in moose, elk, white-tailed deer, and mule deer—raises the question of whether people can get sick from eating the venison. So far, we don’t know.

Meanwhile, my correspondent D'Arcy Allison-Teasley spotted this deer in her own yard early one morning. (It looks hazy because there wasn't much light yet.) D'Arcy noted the odd growths on the deer. Our Wisconsin DNR told her this viral fibromatosis is not especially harmful to the deer, but I wonder whether it affects their chances of getting a date to the spring cotillion.

I'd like to hope that this disease, or something equally minor, is behind the unhealthy appearance of the Kansas deer.

Update: Dee writes with further (chilling) information:

I never heard back from anyone I wrote to about the deer. My personal thoughts are that the herds are probably poisoned from the sludge ponds from the power plant that sets just opposite of the park. There are signs all over the place that say "Do Not Swim" and warnings to get off the lake if the warning siren sounds at the plant. It is a coal generator, not nuclear and the sludge ponds for the waste are just a few scant feet from the lake. The power station itself was listed number 16 on the most polluting power plants in the US.


  1. Up next, deer with two heads... disturbing stuff...


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