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Zombie Deer Disease: It's A Catchy Name That Doesn't Tell The Whole Story

Di Qiu/Flickr

From Texas Standard:

Ever heard of bartonella henselae? It’s the bacteria behind an illness you’re probably more familiar with – cat scratch fever. What about this one: bovine spongiform encephalopathy? You may know it better as mad cow disease. As you can see, nonscientific names for certain afflictions tend to stick. But sometimes, their meanings may get lost in translation.

Over the past few weeks, you may have  heard or seen news stories that start like this:“The Centers for Disease Control wants you to be on the lookout for zombie deer.”

“Zombie deer are invading 24 states around the U.S..”

“Experts say zombie deer are very real and popping up around the Midwest.”

Zombie deer sounds like something from a horror movie.

But the condition’s actual name is chronic wasting disease. It’s a rare condition caused by abnormal prions – misfolded proteins that attack the nervous system. Animals like deer, moose, and elk give it to each other through bodily fluids. It may take several years for a deer to show any symptoms, but inevitably, it will. So far, there’s no cure or treatment. The prions form holes in an affected animal’s brain. Affected deer often drool and stagger, lose weight, and then die. The symptoms do sound zombie-like, but according to those who study it, the term “zombie deer” doesn’t paint an accurate picture.

“The first time I saw that was maybe one or two years ago, and I thought ‘Wow, where in the world did that come from?’” says Bryan Richards, a deer biologist and the emerging disease coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wildlife Health Center.

Previously, Richards worked for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. A lot of his research revolves around chronic wasting disease. It’s an unsettled question whether a deer could transmit the disease to a human, although there’s no evidence that has happened. But according to Richards, chronic wasting disease definitely does not bring dead deer back to life, or make them act aggressively.

“Maybe I date myself when you go back to a video from Michael Jackson in ‘Thriller,’ where things are coming out of the ground and they’re going to eat your brains or something like that,” Richards says. “And that’s not a valid description of what these animals are going through. They’re at the opposite end, they’re about to die.”

Scientists have known about chronic wasting disease since the late 60s. States like Wisconsin and Wyoming have been hit especially hard, but the situation’s not as dire in Texas. The state’s first deer with the disease was discovered in 2012. Since then a few isolated cases have been reported each year, primarily in West Texas and the Panhandle. State officials plan to protect the state’s deer population by being proactive.

Bob Dittmar is the veterinarian for the wildlife division of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

“Our strategy primarily is one of early detection and containment,” Dittmar says.

Dittmar says that a key part of that strategy is making people aware of the disease – which can be a challenge.

“A lot of hunters and landowners don’t know a lot about CWD even though we’ve made a very great attempt to try and educate the public about it,” Dittmar says.

It’s unclear where the term “zombie deer disease” originated, but it’s definitely an attention grabber. Search data from Google shows that over the past few weeks, interest in “zombie deer” exploded – there were way more searches for zombie deer disease than for chronic wasting disease. So here’s what I wanted to know from the experts: if bringing attention to chronic wasting disease is a problem, is it OK to use a term that captures people’s attention, even if it inaccurately characterizes the affliction.

“That’s a really interesting question,” Richards says. “Certainly more attention to chronic wasting disease, more valid attention to chronic wasting disease and scientific support, I’m always a proponent of those things. But just the term ‘zombie deer disease’, tends in my opinion to sensationalize it. So is that good or bad? I guess I could see it either way.”

Still, Richards says he likely would never use the term “zombie deer disease” in place of chronic wasting disease. Neither would Dittmar, the Texas Parks and Wildlife vet.

“I think that we have to be very cautious that this is going to scare people away from hunting and actually make them afraid of deer and wildlife and that sort of thing so, yeah, I think it’s a little over the top,” Dittmar says. “As far as referring to the deer as zombie and trying to scare people, I don’t condone it by any means.”

But even though it may not get the seal of approval from some of the experts, that doesn’t mean the zombie deer moniker will stay buried. After all, these things tend to come to life all on their own.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Michael Marks, Texas Standard