Chronic Wasting Disease has killed deer and elk in 15 states. The fatal brain disease – first discovered in Colorado – has spread as far east as Wisconsin and Illinois. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports there is no proven plan to stop it from going further:
Chronic Wasting Disease has killed deer and elk in 15 states. The fatal
brain disease – first discovered in Colorado – has spread as far east as
Wisconsin and Illinois. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports there is no
proven plan to stop it from going further:
Michigan is the latest state to unveil a plan to prevent Chronic Wasting
Disease from crossing its borders. A state task force is urging more
effective tracking of captive deer and elk herds.
Howard Tanner is the co-chair of Michigan’s Chronic Wasting Disease Task
Force. He says, so far, there is no evidence of the disease in Michigan.
We’re gonna keep it out. We’re gonna prevent it. We don’t want to have to
deal with it after the fact if we can possibly avoid it.”
There are more than 3,000 deer and elk farms in the Great Lakes region.
Tanner says the farms are a risk because the animals can escape and infect
If Chronic Wasting Disease spreads throughout the Midwest, officials say it
could decimate the wild deer population.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium this is Corbin Sullivan.
An artist's rendition of the Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health (image courtesy of DCPAH).
A new animal diagnostic laboratory being built in the Great Lakes region will help farmers and veterinarians get quicker answers about what’s making their animals sick. The lab will also be one of only a handful in the Midwest certified to work with potentially lethal biological agents and infectious diseases. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
A new animal diagnostic laboratory being built in the Great Lakes region will help
farmers and veterinarians get quicker answers about what’s making their animals sick.
The lab will also be one of only a handful in the Midwest certified to work with
potentially lethal biological agents and infectious diseases. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a huge cream-colored building
with green windows. It’s nestled among corn fields and campus dairy farms. When it
opens early next year, Michigan State University’s new animal diagnostic lab will test
thousands of animal samples every week. It’ll be one of the first lines of defense against
animal diseases that are spreading quickly through the Midwest. Testing for Chronic
Wasting Disease, West Nile Virus and Bovine Tuberculosis has already clogged many
labs in the region.
Right now, Michigan State’s ten animal diagnostic services are scattered in outdated labs
all across campus. Every day, the labs take in hundreds of samples from all over the
region. Some are entire animals – dead because of some disease or infection. Others are
just parts of animals – a liver or a piece of muscle.
These veterinary students are trying to find out why two pigs from two different farms
died. One had swollen joints and a high temperature. The other one was anorexic.
(ambient sound: “So have you taken your specimens already?”)
William Reed is the director of Michigan State’s Diagnostic Center for Population and
Animal Health. He says the current labs were built 30 years ago, and were never designed
to be used in the way they are now.
“For example, we need state of the art laboratories that have special air handling
capability. We have to be concerned about protecting the workers, we have to be
concerned about containment of the different pathogens that we work on. And it’s just not
proper to continue to run the kind of analyses in the kinds of facilities that we have.”
Besides dealing with various communicable diseases, the new laboratory will also help
the country build up its defense against bioterrorism. The lab will be one of only a few
facilities in the Midwest that’s classified Biosafety-Level 3. That means scientists are
certified to work with deadly biological pathogens and viruses, such as anthrax and
smallpox. Lab Director William Reed says it’s important there are more labs to handle
biological threats to animals and people.
“We will be able to address some of the agents of bioterrorism and it’s likely that we
would join forces with the federal government in addressing any introduction of a foreign
animal disease, whether intentionally or by accident. Particularly, some of the agents that
terrorists would want to use to harm animal agriculture in the U.S.”
University officials say the new Biosafety-3 lab would be safe and secure. People who
work in the high-containment area get special training and have to follow strict safety
There’s been strong opposition to similar bio-defense labs in other parts of the country.
So far, there’s been no sign of opposition to the Michigan State lab.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t say exactly how many Biosafety-3
labs there are in the region because of security concerns. But there are reportedly two in
Ohio, and several others are being considered in the Midwest.
Randall Levings is the director of the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames,
Iowa. He says the Michigan State University lab will help the federal government build a
bigger network of labs that can quickly deal with a serious outbreak.
“And the whole concept behind that is to have not only more laboratories that can work
with some of these agents, but the concept is also that it would be better to have a
laboratory with that kind of capacity close to the outbreak.”
Levings says another biosafety lab in the Great Lakes region makes sense. That’s because
of the large number of livestock farms, and the proximity to Canada, where there have
been recent outbreaks of animal and human diseases.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.
An artist's rendition of the Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health (image courtesy of DCPAH).
A new animal laboratory in the Great Lakes region will be certified to work with deadly biological agents and infectious diseases. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
A new animal laboratory in the Great Lakes region will be certified to work with deadly
biological agents and infectious diseases. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin
When it opens early next year, the new animal lab at Michigan State University will be
certified as a Biosafety-Level 3 facility. That means it’ll be able to test for deadly
communicable diseases, such as Chronic Wasting Disease, and bioterrorism agents, such
Randall Levings is director of the National Veterinary Services Laboratory. He says the
new facility adds to a growing network of sophisticated labs able to deal with serious
“It could be crucial in terms of quickly defining what areas have it and which ones don’t
so that you can start putting your control measures in place to contain the outbreak and
limit its impact.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t say how many other Biosafety-3
labs there are in the Midwest because of security concerns. However, two others are
reportedly in Ohio.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.
Tom Rakow, right, points out to Kent Rydberg the patch of forest with the tree stand he'll be using. Rakow is the founder and president of the Christian Deer Hunters Association. Rydberg is the membership director. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich).
Conservation means different things to different people. Your interests or your profession might color your view. For example, a hunter, an environmental activist, or a farmer might each define conservation dramatically differently. But other aspects of our lives also affect our views about nature. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jeff Horwich says for some people, the idea of conservation is closely connected with their idea of spirituality:
Conservation means different things to different people. Your interests or your profession might
color your view. For example, a hunter, an environmental activist, or a farmer might each define
conservation dramatically differently. But, other aspects of our lives also affect our views about
nature. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jeff Horwich says for some people the idea of
conservation is closely connected with their idea of spirituality:
At one time whole families, whole villages used to live or die by the hunt. So for some hunters, it
seems fitting that before they go out to kill something the afternoons start with a prayer.
“Lord help us to hunt in such a way that it is pleasing to you. . .We recognize you’re
here.. .We just put it in your hands, in
Christ’s name, Amen.”
It’s a cloudy, windy day in the countryside west of Hutchinson, Minnesota. Tom Rakow and
Kent Rydberg stand side-by-side with their bows, president and membership director of the
Christian Deer Hunters Association. The group is based at Rakow’s home in Silver Lake, but
claims hundreds of dues-paying members around the country.
Rakow grew up in Wisconsin, and came to deer hunting long before he came to God.
“Unfortunately I poached my first deer while I was squirrel hunting at age 11, and things just kinda
went downhill from there. Deer hunting was my God.”
A teenage Rakow was carrying an archery permit when he shot his first deer with a .22, an illegal
kill. So, to make it look legal, he stuck an arrow in its side and got away with it.
Rakow went through a religious conversion at 21. He became a born-again Christian. He says he
realized deer hunting was his own false idol. He says either he had to find a way to harmonize
God and deer hunting or the hunting had to go.
“That’s buck manure. And here’s another scrape there.”
We’re moving over a plowed field, into tall grass on our way to tree stands in the forest.
Needless to say, the Reverend Rakow is now at peace with his two passions. He ministers to 80
people in his independent church each Sunday, and spends up to 30 days in the woods each fall.
Rakow’s theology of hunting balances two messages from the Bible. First is the chance to
appreciate God’s natural splendor. Rakow marvels at pheasants, mice, and of course, deer.
“Ultimately God created that deer. What did I have to do with that? You know, he fed that deer in the wild,
caused the antlers to grow, I didn’t have any part of that.”
But the Bible’s second message is the mandate to hunt. Rakow cites Psalm 8.
“There is a hierarchy. Humans, you, I, we have been made in the image of God. We have a
divine responsibility. We should be stewards over creation and part of that is hunting as a management
Using the Bible as a hunting guide leads to some distinctive viewpoints. The Christian Deer
Hunter on trespassing:
“If we love our neighbor as ourself, we’re not going to be going somewhere where they don’t want us to
“So as far as you can see, the Bible and the DNR are pretty well in sync with one another?”
“Well, I don’t know if I want to go that far. But Romans:13, Paul writing to the believers in Rome, he
says that powers that be have been ordained of God and we are to submit to those powers.”
And on the plague of chronic wasting disease ravaging deer in his home region of Wisconsin:
“Being from that area, I mean, I know that there are a lot of people that to them deer hunting ranked up there
where it once did for me, where it was more important than God.”
Rakow wouldn’t necessarily call chronic wasting disease a punishment brought by God. But he
does see it as a result of violating the good stewardship rules laid out in the Bible.
And the perspective of the Christian deer hunter raises new questions that have not yet captured
the public imagination.
“I’m completing a book, that one of the chapters is Would Jesus Shoot Bambi?”
The answer is complicated, but it boils down to this: Bambi is not a real deer and yes, Jesus
For an hour we sit in dead silence, 20 feet apart and 15 feet off the ground in tree stands. Then,
behind us, some rustling. Rakow tenses, his bowstring drawn back to his shoulder.
Rakow’s trailing string winds off into the brush.
“I think I just basically trimmed some hairs off his back. When I find my arrow that’s usually not
the best sign.”
But for the Christian Deer Hunter, it’s all right. The membership director, Kent Rydberg, didn’t get
one either. But God talks to him all the time on the deer stand, and that’s something.
“When God’s all around you, it’s sort of hard to put him out of the way. So there’s been some
really good thinking times.”
Of course it’s always better to fill your permit. But these guys have decided it’s not just deer
they’re hunting for out here.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jeff Horwich.
This hunting season there’s a lot more testing for a disease that’s killing deer in parts of the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
This hunting season, there’s a lot more testing for a disease that’s killing deer in parts of
the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
Chronic Wasting Disease is similar to Mad Cow Disease. In this instance, it attacks deer
and elk, causing them to waste away, become disoriented, and eventually die. It’s been
found in captive animals in Minnesota, in the wild deer population in Wisconsin and just
recently a deer in Illinois was found to have Chronic Wasting Disease. Carol Knowles is
with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She says about 4,000 samples of
tissue from deer are being taken during the hunting season. They’ll be sent to labs to see
how far the disease has spread in that state. But because the labs are being swamped with samples, it
will take a while before anything is known.
“It will take months to get all of those results back, yes. But we hope to expedite the ones in northern Illinois where we know we had at least one
Other Great Lakes states are also testing for Chronic Wasting Disease in their deer herds,
hoping to stop the disease from spreading quickly.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
Wildlife officials in the Midwest are battling the appearance of a deadly illness found in elk and deer. Called chronic wasting disease, or CWD, this ailment attacks an animal’s brain, slowly eating away healthy tissue. Several captive elk herds in the western U.S. and Canada have been infected with chronic wasting disease. Those herds have now been quarantined, but not before other animals from those herds were sold to farmers in 21 states nationwide, including several in the Midwest. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby has this first report of a two-part series:
Wildlife officials in the Midwest are battling the appearance of a deadly illness found in elk and deer. Called chronic wasting disease, or CWD, this ailment attacks an animal’s brain, slowly eating away healthy tissue. Several captive elk herds in the western U.S. and Canada have been infected with chronic wasting disease. Those herds have now been quarantined, but not before other animals from those herds were sold to farmers in 21 states nationwide, including several in the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby reports.
Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disorder. That means it affects the nervous system of elk and deer. It’s related to a number of other conditions, including scrapies in sheep and mad cow disease. Humans can also contract something similar — it’s called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
All these conditions are related — and that’s making some health officials nervous. That’s because at least one, mad cow, can be transferred to humans. Dennis Stauffer is a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He says now more and more people are also keeping an eye on CWD.
“It’s been called the mad cow disease of deer. It is certainly similar biologically. There are also some important differences. Unlike mad cow disease, or CWD as we call it, we don’t yet have any evidence it is transmittable to humans. So that particular health risk is not confirmed.”
But that doesn’t stop people from worrying.
In the 1990s, mad cow disease in Great Britain triggered a similar ailment in humans, eventually killing dozens of people. But public health officials downplayed that possibility, leading to less vigilance in eliminating mad cow. Some people now say the same thing is happening here with CWD. Sheldon Rampton is the author of “Mad Cow U.S.A.”
“You are getting the same pattern of reassurances. The same pattern of government authorities and government scientists coming forward and not quite saying there is no danger, but saying they don’t see any evidence of danger. And then saying that in such a way that the public is led to believe that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”
One of the problems is, little is known about the disease. Kris Petrini is a veterinarian with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
“We don’t know exactly what the incubation period is. We don’t know the youngest possible time an animal can get infected. The testing itself, right now, the only test we have that we can do is the animal has to be sacrificed and the brain tested.”
The outward signs of CWD aren’t exhibited until death is near. Again, Dennis Stauffer of the Minnesota DNR.
“Well, if you were to see a picture of one of these animals, they would be stumbling around, they would look wasted away. In advance stages, they would look disoriented, they would tend not to fear humans. They would look very, very sick and it would be very obvious that they are sick animals.”
Since learning that 36 elk from CWD-infected herds in Colorado and Canada were imported to Minnesota, state officials have set up a voluntary CWD surveillance program. All herds with exposed animals are participating in the program. Of the elk tested for CWD so far, none have had CWD.
(sound from Spooner, Wisconsin deer testing station: Cars on nearby two-lane highway.)
In neighboring Wisconsin, state officials are aggressively testing for CWD. On the opening weekend of deer hunting season, veterinarians took hundreds of brain samples from dead animals at locations throughout the state. In previous years, such efforts turned up no cases of CWD in the wild deer population, just like Minnesota. Ken Jonas is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“Right now, I’m not too concerned. If I were in Colorado or perhaps Wyoming or a state that was near to a chronic infection, I would be very concerned.”
While Kris Petrini, the Minnesota veterinarian, understands CWD hasn’t made it into the wild deer population, she says she wouldn’t be surprised to find it among the captive elk population in the state.
“No, not completely. Not with the number of elk we have and the amount of trading that goes on in the industry, I think it is highly possible that we will find chronic wasting disease.”
Six western states are home to elk herds with CWD infections. Elk farmers in another 15 states — including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — own animals from the original infected herds. So far, tests haven’t turned up any traces of CWD in herds with exposed animals in those states.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Todd Melby in Minneapolis.
Several captive elk in Colorado have tested positive for chronic wasting disease. This fatal neurological ailment attacks an animal’s brain, slowly eating away healthy tissue. Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has also spread to the wild deer population near the Colorado and Wyoming border. That’s prompted wildlife officials in the Midwest to begin looking for CWD in their wild deer herds. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby visited one such testing site in rural Wisconsin and filed this report:
Several captive elk in Colorado have tested positive for chronic wasting disease. This fatal neurological ailment attacks an animal’s brain, slowly eating away healthy tissue. Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has also spread to the wild deer population near the Colorado and Wyoming border. That’s prompted wildlife officials in the Great Lakes region to begin looking for CWD in their wild deer herds. Todd Melby of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium visited one such testing site in rural Wisconsin and filed this report.
The opening of the deer-hunting season in Wisconsin is a big day for Pauline Nol. But it’s not because she’s a hunter. Nol is a veterinarian. Instead of wearing a blaze orange vest, Nol sports a blue Dickie jumpsuit. She’ll need it to keep the blood of dead deer from staining her clothes.
(sound of medical instruments, followed by background sound of Nol and another vet moving instruments around on a table)
Nol and another veterinarian are arranging medical instruments on a folding table. It’s the kind of portable table you might find in a school cafeteria or church basement. Only today, the table is set up outside, in the parking lot of a Department of Natural Resources building just outside Spooner, a small town in northwestern Wisconsin.
In about a half hour, hunters will be pulling up in their pickup trucks to register deer they’ve shot just this morning. When they do, Nol, who works at the Department of Interior’s National Wildlife Health Center, will ask hunters if she might take a few samples from the carcass. The purpose: To check for chronic wasting disease.
Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological illness that is part of the same family of diseases as scrapies in sheep, mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. CWD destroys a deer’s brain and is always fatal. Before death, the infected animal seems listless, confused and often stumbles around aimlessly.
There is concern among some people that CWD may be transmittable to humans. Yet many states in the Great Lakes region, such as nearby Minnesota, have just begun testing for CWD in wild deer herds. While it still seems limited to captive herds, officials are worried the disease could spread. Dennis Stauffer is a spokesman for the Minnesota DNR.
“The greatest problem, we think, in terms of not just the animals but in terms of human health is if this gets into the wild population. That would be, I think, very problematic. Because then once it’s no longer just limited to captive animals, then you have a real issue of how in the world do you get to it and eradicate it.”
In Wisconsin, veterinarians like Nol, have been testing dead deer since 1999. So far, the news has been good. No cases of CWD have been detected in the state’s wild deer herds.
(sound from deer testing station: Cars on nearby two-lane highway)
Back at the parking lot, employees are now ready to tag incoming deer. And that’s got Nol busy too. She strolls over to a couple standing next to a dead buck resting its head on the tailgate of a red pickup.
“Who got the deer this morning? That would be you? Congratulations. That’s great, that’s really great. So, we’re doing some sampling for looking at different diseases in the deer herd. So we’re wondering if we could take some samples from your deer?”
The pair agrees and Nol gets busy. The first thing she does is pull the deer’s head beyond the edge of the tailgate. And then she begins slicing through the fur and into the neck.
“What I’m doing is I’m making a cut in the neck just behind the jaw line. And that exposes the base of the brain, the brain stem and those lymph nodes we’re looking for.”
The lymph nodes are tested for bovine tuberculosis, or TB, a disease that’s been found in Michigan’s free-ranging deer herd since 1994. Wisconsin began testing deer for TB in 1996 and has yet to find an incidence of the disease.
The man who shot the deer is Tom Hack of Hartford, Wisconsin. Once the brain stem, lymph nodes and blood samples are analyzed back at Nol’s lab, Hack will be notified of the results.
There’s been no evidence linking CWD to humans. However, the state is testing deer for diseases and I ask Hack if that gives him pause.
“Well, sure. If I’m going to be eating the meat. Yeah, yeah it would worry me.”
“So, are you going to wait until you get the postcard back before you eat the meat?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
A little later, I catch up with Ken Jonas. He’s a wildlife biologist with the state DNR. This morning, he shot a deer himself. And now he’s tagging animals nabbed by other hunters. I ask him if hunters should wait until they receive their postcards back in the mail before eating the meat.
“No. Again, we consider all the deer currently to be safe in the state of Wisconsin. The monitoring is being done to determine if there is a problem at this point in time. We have no detects of either of those diseases in the wild herd.”
The reason for the testing, Jonas says, isn’t to let individual hunters know of a personal health risk, but to see if CWD has found its way into the state’s wild deer herds. For the Great Lake Radio Consortium, I’m Todd Melby in Minneapolis.