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 populations.

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."

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