"Man is in the forest."
So warned a worried mother to her son as a single gunshot rang through the trees.
Chronic wasting disease: what is it?Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological disease that has spread through deer and elk populations in Wisconsin, Illinois and most recently, Missouri.
The cause of the disease is a protein known as a prion. Prions are neither bacteria nor virus, but they are highly contagious among susceptible hosts. The hosts for CWD are cervids, or hoofed animals in the deer family such as whitetail deer, mule deer, elk and moose. Humans are not susceptible to CWD.
The symptoms of CWD are both physiological and behavioral. The diseased animal becomes emaciated and listless, salivating excessively and grinding teeth. The animal exhibits loss of overall muscle coordination and often smells like rotting meat. The progressive disease is always fatal.
CWD spreads readily in cervid populations. The disease is passed from one animal to another via feces, urine or saliva. Prions remain viable in soil for a long period of time, increasing the likelihood of contamination from the environment.
In 2011, 42 cases of CWD were found in Illinois.
The mother, of course, was a doe and her somber portent was directed to a fawn named Bambi. Straight from Walt Disney Studios (where deer can talk), this scene in the 1942 movie "Bambi" has tugged at the heartstrings of Americans for 70 years.
The 21st century sequel is in the making, but things are a bit more complicated this time around. The setting is not the Disney studios, but the woods of northern Illinois. There doesn't appear to be a director on the set, and the actors are not reading the same script. The deer in this drama are on the sidelines, playing second fiddle to the human stars of the show.
And the most confusing thing about this production is that the central conflict isn't as simple as Man-vs.-Bambi. In fact, it's hard to tell who the good guy is -- or if there is a bad guy.
First, a synopsis. The controversy centers on an Illinois Department of Natural Resources study in northern Kane County. The IDNR launched this multiyear project in 2000 to test for the presence of chronic wasting disease, or CWD, in white-tailed deer. The goal of the study is to track the spread of CWD. In so doing, the IDNR will have a basis for determining measures to prevent the advance of the disease. Wildlife biologists will also be able to gauge the effectiveness of their efforts.
The study involves sampling deer in areas that include forest preserve district property in Kane County. Wishing to continue the research in this longitudinal study, the IDNR recently approached the District to request permission to sample deer in select forest preserves this winter.
So far so good. There's a little catch, however. Samples can only be obtained from deer once they're dead. The study thus requires sharpshooters to kill deer in order to obtain samples. And killing deer, on film or in real life, is a hot-button issue.
The plot thickens as opposition to the study brews in Rutland Township. Numerous residents have formed a group called the North Rutland Deer Alliance. Their primary concern is that the IDNR study will reduce the size of the herd, therefore compromising their deer-watching experience and/or their ability to hunt. These folks vehemently oppose sampling -- e.g., killing -- deer.
To halt the killing, the Deer Alliance has brought up all manner of accusations about the IDNR's track record, methods, and motives. The IDNR has answered accusations and questions about sampling methods and the science of the study. The agency has assured the Deer Alliance that there is no motive other than sound, scientifically-based wildlife management.
IDNR's wildlife biologists have used maps, graphs, and statistical tables to support their case. Members of the Deer Alliance have pulled out numbers of their own. Biologists have talked in terms of epidemiology, and opponents have responded in veterinary-speak. Words like prion and vector, population density and cervid mortality have been bandied about. Many people, regardless of training or profession, have jumped on the science bandwagon to make their case.
The debate, however, is not about science at all. It's not about sampling methods, population biology, habitat carrying capacity, or statistics. The issue is people. Wildlife management is always about people. "Bambi" is about people. And people hold widely varying attitudes toward animals.
The range of attitudes is as broad as the human population is large. In order to understand the differences, Stephen Kellert of Harvard University conducted research and in 1976 published "Perceptions of Animals in American Society." In this work, Kellert grouped people along a continuum of attitudes toward wildlife.
On one end of the spectrum, Kellert said, are people who have a strong affection for individual animals, particularly pets. These he called "humanistic" people. Others hold a primary interest in the outdoors, and their affection is for wildlife in general. Kellert named this group "naturalistic." People whose main concern is for the environment as a system are "ecologistic." This group focuses on the interrelations between wildlife species and natural habitats. And there are "scientistic" people who are primarily interested in the physical attributes and biological functioning of animals.
While these descriptions shed light on attitudes and values, there are complications and contradictions inherent in any group. Take, for example, the humanistic group. It's likely some people in the Deer Alliance fall into this category. They are concerned about the lives of individual deer.
This begs the question: What if the species at risk were the black rat snake and not the white-tailed deer? Would there be a Snake Alliance in opposition to snake sampling? What if the wildlife in the path of disease were native crayfish or spiders or nematodes? Ultimately, the question is which wildlife has more value, those with big brown eyes, those with little beady eyes, those with compound eyes, or those with no eyes at all?
We humans are in the unique position of forming opinions and making decisions based on our opinions. You may not realize it, but you are involved in animal issues every day. Whether answering your kids' earnest pleas to get a puppy or buying steak at the grocery store, you are making a choice based on your opinions about animals. Whether you feed birds in your yard or call animal control to remove raccoons from your attic, you are making decisions about animals.
Some animals are considered good and some are considered bad. Some should be fed and some should be killed. We get to choose.
What if your choice is to oppose the killing of individual deer for scientific research? Or, what if you support killing individuals for the overall health of the herd? In either case, deer are considered good animals, but the perspective on the situation is vastly different.
There is a very gray area between right and wrong here. It's unclear who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. What is clear, however, is that conflicts are tough to resolve when people approach them from disparate (and often contradictory) attitudes toward the nonhuman world. Neither side understands why the other side doesn't "get it," despite well-thought out and carefully articulated arguments. One person's reasoning may be another person's nonsense.
This story speaks volumes about the human-wildlife dynamic. Let's listen with open ears and think with open minds. The deer are watching.
Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.