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SYFY WIRE animals

The good news: Zombie deer aren't really a thing, but the bad news may be worse

By Adam Pockross

While news of the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in U.S. deer populations certainly isn’t good, at least we don’t have to look out for The Galloping Dead anytime soon.

Apparently, we’re not the only ones who really wanted to squeeze “zombie deer” into a headline, because according to USA Today, some hunters and wildlife experts are confused by such descriptions of CWD, as the effects of the long-established disease appear to be far more like dementia than zombie-ism, with the disease eating away at the animal’s brain. And regardless of what the effects look like to us, either way, it sucks to be a deer with CWD, because the end result is always fatal. 

Though some symptoms may indeed sound vaguely zombie-like — stumbling, drooling, listlessness, extreme weight loss — such ill-effects don’t usually show up in deer (and elk and moose) until the last few months of the disease before death, as neurological symptoms develop slowly. In fact, animals that have contracted the disease, which has been found in 24 states now, can appear healthy for a up to two full years.

"You cannot eyeball a deer and say if it has CWD," Lindsay Thomas Jr., director of communications for the Quality Deer Management Association, told USA Today — although deer could, in the final stages, appear weak and underweight. Which means that hunters can unintentionally shoot an animal plagued with the disease, and only find out through testing that their game is infected.

No known case of CWD has ever appeared in humans, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the most likely way that could happen is by eating infected meat. With thousands of infected deer thought to be eaten annually, that’s a far more frightening reality than zombie deer walking around the woods.