Reindeer Banned as U.S. States Fight Brain Disease

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
December 24, 2002
Captive reindeer may have trouble making their rounds this Christmas,
and the problem isn't sleet or snow. The culprit is a fatal brain
disease gradually spreading through North America's deer and elk

Although no reindeer have ever been affected by chronic wasting disease, many states have closed their borders to all members of the cervid family—including deer, elk, moose, and reindeer.

Traveling reindeer are a common fixture this time of year at shopping malls, Christmas displays, photo shoots, parades, and other public events across the United States. But this season, many of the animals will be staying home for the holidays as wildlife agencies attempt to contain the spread of the brain disease.

The bans impose a serious financial loss on reindeer breeders and exhibitors. Unlike other cervids bred for game hunting or meat, reindeer are raised primarily as exhibition animals.

"This has screwed up the economics for a lot of the pretty good-sized reindeer breeding people," said Gary Borton, a Michigan breeder and member of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association. "It's just happened this year, and it's really been kind of a shock that's put the hurt on a lot of people."

Deadly Disease Has No Live Animal Test, No Vaccine, No Cure

Chronic wasting disease, also known by the acronym CWD, is an affliction similar to the highly publicized "mad-cow" disease, which struck European cattle in recent years. CWD has been detected in wild and farm-raised populations of elk, whitetail deer, blacktail deer, and mule deer in 11 states and in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Other members of the cervid family, such as reindeer and moose, have not been affected by the disease to date. Scientists do not know if the animals are susceptible to chronic wasting disease.

Thousands of wild and domestic animals have been killed in an attempt to control the disease. The methods may seem drastic, but Jerry Feaser of the Pennsylvania Game Commission warns that the disease is a deadly-serious problem that led his state to ban live cervid imports. "There is no practical live test for this disease and no cure," Feaser said. "If an animal gets this—it's dead. How does it spread? We're not sure. There are far too many questions about this disease to take risks."

Until the mid-1990's chronic wasting disease was seen as a problem restricted to western states in the U.S. More recently, the disease has jumped a major geographic barrier—the Mississippi River—to spread east. That has led many states to reevaluate their policies toward the disease.

The state of Wisconsin instituted stringent new emergency rules after discovering chronic wasting disease in the state's wild deer population.

"Essentially, unless a herd has been under surveillance for CWD for at least five years, you can not import any cervid into Wisconsin," said Donna Gilson of the animal health division of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. "That's a standard that almost no one in America could meet. So the effect was sort of like a ban."

Asked why reindeer were included in the state ban, even though they have never exhibited the disease, Gilson replied, "We chose to use a broad brush because most reindeer breeders also raise other species. Also, we needed the world to know that we were taking this very seriously [and] not taking chances."

Reindeer Breeders Hope to See Restrictions Eased

Wisconsin reindeer breeder Tom Scheib understands the concern of wildlife agencies, but said he hopes to see changes to their current approach.

"When they instituted a lockdown and banned all cervids, you're talking about some 38 species of deer," he said. "To date, only four have contracted CWD and all four of those species are native to North America—unlike my reindeer."

"I will support any disease program that's reasonable, logical, and scientific. I have absolutely no problem with that," Scheib said. "But I get a little hot when bureaucrats want to stop my animals from moving [when] it's a species that has never exhibited this disease."

"If I have some exhibition reindeer standing in front of a performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, how are they going to come into contact with a herd of native whitetail deer?" he asked.

Scheib pointed out that many states that ban the import of all live cervids, even species that have not exhibited chronic wasting disease, allow hunters to harvest susceptible species from confirmed disease areas like Colorado and bring the carcasses home as trophies.

Some state agencies have maintained that they have no legal jurisdiction over dead animals or that the movement of butchered animals does not pose a significant disease threat. Testing is underway to determine if susceptible species can acquire CWD from the carcasses of infected animals.

The current situation has created a holiday nightmare for many reindeer farmers.

"We recognize that this is going to create financial hardships for reindeer farmers this year," said Feaser. "But what we're trying to do here…will ensure a degree of protection for them and for their livestock [in the future]."

"We're looking at the same 40-acre field from a different tree," said Scheib. "So we somehow have to try to work out what's best everyone. We have the same goals, but we don't always agree on the methods."

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