The idea of sick, salivating and zombie-like deer invading Florida sounds like the plot of a low-budget horror film.
But this could become reality if the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does not adopt a rule to prevent it. To protect Florida’s wild deer, the FWC’s proposed rule aims to prevent chronic wasting disease, an incurable illness which infects deer, elk and other cervids. Similar to mad-cow disease, CWD attacks the animals’ brain and nervous systems. Although Florida does not have a documented case of CWD, 22 states do, and that number continues to grow.
The rule, which the FWC will consider at its Sept. 6 meeting in Pensacola, would prohibit people from bringing live deer into Florida. Although we don’t have a shortage of deer in the state, some want to import deer and elk to stock their captive hunting ranches. These facilities concentrate animals in unnaturally high densities, which increases the opportunity for diseases such as CWD to spread.
On captive hunts, animals ranging from whitetail deer to exotic and endangered African antelope are enclosed by high fences ensuring that they cannot escape, and then shot for guaranteed trophies.
CWD is a dangerous, highly infectious disease. Unlike a virus or infection that can be cured, CWD is caused by prions — abnormal proteins transmitted through saliva, urine and other bodily fluids. Once shed, these prions can live in the environment for years, which means the prions will remain active and can continue to infect new animals even after infected animals have been removed.
Many ask why the deer can’t just be tested before importing them; however, there is no live test for this disease. Meaning, there is no way of knowing whether live deer coming to our state are sick or healthy. Since CWD has a long incubation period, an animal can appear healthy, while still being infected with this fatal disease.
Florida is one of the few remaining states that can avoid this disease because none of our bordering states have found CWD. All of them already prohibit live importation of cervids. Admitting an infected animal is the only way CWD will enter our state. A complete ban on importation is the only way to protect Florida from this devastating disease.
It would be wise to act now to prevent a costly outbreak. We don’t want to be like Wisconsin, which learned the hard way just how high the price tag of a CWD outbreak can be. In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had to pay nearly half a million dollars to purchase land that was previously a privately owned CWD-positive deer farm, just so they could ensure that their wild deer herd wasn’t exposed to the CWD-contaminated soil. That was in addition to the whopping $45 million the agency spent from 2002 to 2011 responding to the disease.
Floridians cannot afford the cost a CWD outbreak would bring to our state — both the biological damage to our wild deer herds and the devastating economic impact a disease of this magnitude would have. Approving the ban on live importation of cervids should be a no-brainer for the FWC.
When there is the threat of a fatal disease that cannot be tested on live animals, preventing an influx of potentially infected deer is the proper first step to protect the state. The Humane Society of the United States urges the commissioners to pass this necessary rule at their upcoming meeting to protect Florida’s wildlife.
Kate MacFall is the Florida State Director of the Humane Society of the United States