Suburban location produced sick deer
Haslett, Mich. — On a cold, blustery winter morning last December, Bill Corzine looked outside and saw a white-tailed deer lying beneath his bedroom window. He thought that was a bit odd. Corzine lives in a middle class subdivision in Ingham County’s Meridian Township with tree-lined paved streets, brick ranches and tri-level homes. The back of the subdivision, however, borders privately owned agricultural land and wetlands where wild animals roam.
Every day, all winter and well into spring, the deer returned to Corzine’s yard and slept beneath his window. Also unusual was the fact the deer didn’t seem to be afraid of humans. When anyone left the house through the front door – mere feet away from where it was lying – the deer would barely acknowledge the intrusion into its seemingly restful ways.
“When it first showed up back in December, it had spots on its head where I thought his antlers fell off, so I named him Leroy,” Corzine told Michigan Outdoor News in an exclusive interview. “He’d leave during the day, but return every evening. He never missed a day all winter long. I thought it was weird, but pretty cool, too.”
Over the first couple of weeks of the daily appearances, Corzine developed a connection with the animal. He’d toss chunks of carrots, apples and broccoli to the deer and talk calmly to it while it ate.
“I’d throw him apples and carrots and put a bowl with some water in it out there for him. It got to the point where I could feed him by hand and even pet him a little,” he said.
Little did Corzine know that the loss of fear of humans was an early symptom of chronic wasting disease, a highly contagious and deadly disease that the deer was carrying.
Chronic wasting disease is a contagious, always-fatal, neurological disease that affects cervids – deer, elk and moose. It is not known to affect humans or livestock. It’s caused by an abnormal protein (prion) that attacks the brain. Infected animals slowly waste away. Initially, they begin to act abnormally and lose their fear of humans. Then they experience chronic weight loss and loss of body functions before succumbing to the disease.
Symptoms of CWD don’t usually appear until the animal is 18 months old or older, and is most often found in 3- to 5-year-olds.
The disease has been identified in captive or wild deer in 23 states and two Canadian provinces. If it becomes established in Michigan’s deer herd, it has the potential to negatively impact the state’s 1 million-plus deer population over time, and change deer management in the state forever.
By April, the deer started suffering from the later stages of the disease.
“We took a week vacation in April and when we got home the deer came walking up to the house and it just didn’t look good,” Corzine said. “It looked like a totally different deer. I was really surprised it went downhill so far in a week.
“Its tongue was hanging out and it couldn’t open its mouth to eat. It was walking really slow. To be honest, I thought maybe someone had poisoned it because it was hanging around the subdivision so much.”
The following day the deer was in worse shape and couldn’t even drink water.
“She’d put her head in a bowl of water I put out for it and just swirl her head around and spill it,” Corzine said. “She couldn’t even drink.”
Corzine said he called the local police department and an officer came over and shot the animal on April 12, “right in the front yard.”
“I felt really bad,” he said. “I knew it had to be put down because it was really sick – it was drooling, losing weight, its face was swollen and it couldn’t eat or drink. But I kind of had a connection with it. I was pretty sad.”
The deer turned out to be a doe – pregnant with two buck fawns. It tested positive for chronic wasting disease. It was the first free-ranging white-tailed deer to test positive for CWD in Michigan.
“We did not test the fetuses,” DNR veterinarian Dr. Steve Schmitt told MON. “It’s highly unlikely to have transmission of the disease in the uterus. They’re more likely to catch it from nursing and contact.”
As of June 11, veterinarians at the Michigan State University Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health in Lansing had tested more than 60 deer from the nine-township Core CWD Zone surrounding the area where the infected deer was found. None tested positive for the disease. Many were deer that had been hit by a vehicle. Others were from a USDA Wildlife Services culling operation.
Local residents don’t seem overly concerned about the discovery.
“I went down there and looked at it and showed my kids, said George Musser, a mechanic at the Haslett Marathon Station just a couple miles down the road from where the deer was killed. “It looked pretty normal at first. By the end it had started losing weight and drooling a lot.
“It’s bad for the deer and bad for us hunters, but overall I’m not too concerned. I’m not one for the killing of a lot of deer, but I hope they come in and take the numbers down and get it under control.”
Gerard Willis lives just around the corner from Corzine’s house and was mowing his lawn on a sunny afternoon a week after the deer had tested positive.
“I’m more worried about the ticks in the garden than I am about the deer,” he said. “We saw that deer at the tail end. It was eating out of the flower beds down the street in the middle of the day, and you don’t usually see them during the day. You could drive your car two or three feet from it and it wouldn’t even move. We knew something was wrong with it.”
State officials are monitoring the situation and culling deer from the area in an effort to determine the extent of the disease in the local deer herd. Management options will depend on how widespread CWD is found.
State officials also are asking residents to call (517) 336-5030 to report the location of road-killed deer within this area or deer that are acting abnormally.