The disease devastating deer herds may also threaten human health

Scientists have called this neurodegenerative disease, which attacks deer, elk and moose, a “nightmare” and a “state of emergency.” Lately, the media’s been calling it “zombie deer disease.” Lawmakers are calling it a “crisis” and currently considering at least three bills at the national level to combat it. Researchers, resource managers and others worry it could hurt hunting, alter the landscape, or even jump across species to infect people.

Mountain lions know that something is wrong. A number of years ago, ecologists studied which deer mountain lions prefer to attack. “The mountain lions were definitely preferentially selecting deer that had chronic wasting disease over those that were negative,” the ecologists say. “And for most of the ones that they had killed, we had not detected any chronic wasting disease symptoms yet. So certainly the lions were able to key in on far more subtle cues than we were.”

Unlike us, the lions sense that while a deer might look vigorous and alert, it may actually be a ticking time bomb. That’s one of the many weird things about this disease. It isn’t like viral or bacterial illnesses. The infection can sit in a herd for years, crawling from animal to animal, before people notice anything is wrong.

Then, things can go downhill fast. “Through time (it) degrades, essentially, their brain tissue,” says an ecologist. In just a few weeks, deer could start to droop and drool, as an infection gnaws holes into the animal’s brain. “That seems to happen pretty rapidly,” she says. “To our eyes, they look fairly healthy, and within a number of weeks they reach that point — and then they’re gone.”

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