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Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
(February 21, 2010)

The Call Of The Wild Answers A New Disease

"Listen to them... Children of the night.... Such music!"

-- Bela Lugosi, as Dracula, listening to wolves howling.

mad cow1.jpg
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is an organic brain syndrome caused by a protein-like particle called a prion. Loss of brain function resembles Alzheimer's disease, but is very rapid in progression. Complete dementia usually occurs by the sixth month, death follows quickly. There is no known cure. Photo and text credit: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/

Epictetus, that ancient stoic philosopher, would have appreciated the controversy Governor Palin created when she permitted wolf hunting in five Alaskan counties. It was a perfect illustration of his maxim: "It is not the object that causes us trouble, it is the emotion that the object arouses in us."

Buddhism's skandhas describe the process: emotion gives rise to opinion; and any opinion that is based upon emotion is bound to be troublesome.

It's hard to believe that only eighteen months ago thousands of Americans were so incensed about the deaths of Alaskan wolves that the internet flared with invective. Actresses who wouldn't know a wolf from a Schnauzer were turgid with righteous indignation. TV talkers who loved animals so much they paid someone to feed, groom, train, and take their Labs for a walk, sneered at the brutish injustice.

What a difference eighteen months makes. Sweden, a country of 175,000 square miles of largely forested terrain, decided that its 217 wolves - left over from previous exterminations - were 27 too many and permitted "open season" on the animals. Twenty animals were killed the first day. Americans, who objected so vehemently to the Alaskan culling, yawned.

Where has all that wolf-love gone?

In fact, it never was. The protest against Palin had nothing to do with wolves. What it had to do with was an ugly motive to which we all fall victim. In Zen we make a concerted - if often failed - effort to rid ourselves of it. We know that there are two ways to win a race. Either you run faster than the other guy or you fix it so the other guy runs slower than you.

Experience has taught us never to underestimate the chemical force that archetypes command. When we project the Hero upon a person, it matters little why he has achieved our notice. Once we are psychologically hooked we give him our adulation and, to an often irrational degree, our uncritical support. A surge of endorphins inebriates us and, infatuated, we eagerly destroy anyone or any thing that opposes him. Sooner or later the endorphins quit. We sober up. All that is left is a awkward memory of our former excitement - which we quickly shrug-off as we turn our attention elsewhere.

For good or ill, we may have helped disrupt the course of a policy; or we may have helped to reduce a serious matter to the rubble of mindless controversy and inaction. This is what happened to the wolf issue: nobody has done anything about the core problem: the needs of predatory animals versus the needs of people. In ways we did not imagine, it is a compelling problem.

In Alaska's wilderness, the isolated communities that depend upon wild game as a principal food source have one kind of predation problem: an overpopulation of wolves results in the killing of too many of the game animals on which people depend. In the more temperate climates of accessible areas in which livestock are commercially raised, ranchers have another problem: wolves living near the perimeters of private land are intruding to kill cattle and sheep; and when, by special permit, ranchers drive cattle and sheep to graze in lands that are in the public domain, wolves that we've allowed back into that public land try to prey upon the intruding domestic animals.

A hundred years ago, most Americans lived in rural communities where deer were an important food source. By 1930 the deer population had shrunk to a disastrous low of 300,000 animals, and during the Great Depression people's need for food placed an even greater strain upon the animal. The government encouraged the killing of wolves and restricted hunting. No one who is familiar with the ways of bureaucracy should be surprised to learn that no thought whatsoever was given to the policy's future consequences.

Wolves, in the lower forty-eight states, were hunted to extinction. By the end of the 1930s, the Depression ended; the country went back to work; agribusiness and World War II brought rural populations into cities; beef replaced venison; and the inane but joyful extirpation of the wolf, nature's balancing force, combined to create the great deer population explosion.

Prosperity made cougars (also called pumas and mountain lions) trophy animals and their populations also decreased drastically. In the absence of these predators, herds of deer and elk that had been prey animals multiplied without benefit of Darwinian imperatives. Diseased, weakened animals - the targets of choice of preying animals - remained to spread their diseases throughout the proliferating herds.

From its low of 300,000 in 1930 the deer population burgeoned to an estimated 30,000,000 today; and this horrendous number of animals that for nearly a hundred years were not culled for disease have fallen victim to starvation and to a strange contagion, just as they are also increasingly wandering onto roadways to become a serious problem to automobile traffic.

The nature of the contagion is particularly troubling. Deer and elk are stricken with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) as sheep are with Scrapie, two of the always fatal Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy diseases - a group of so-called "Prion" diseases (which includes Mad Cow Disease).

Prions, a bizarre life form first identified a few dozen years ago, is still a new and somewhat mysterious subject to science. A prion is a kind of rogue protein particle that is not only toxic but fecund and imperialistic. It can enter all tissues but its preferred targets are the brain and spinal cord. It is impervious to heat and just about anything else that mankind has thrown at it. It is as healthy when it leaves the digestive system as when it entered it. It passes from mother to fetus and is transmitted by the ingestion of the flesh, urine, saliva and feces of an infected animal. The incubation period is not known, and months or years may pass before the symptoms of tremors, itching, staggering, dementia, and finally death, appear. Routine testing procedures of live animals have so far been futile since prions do not elicit an immune response that would reveal their presence.

Some sheep, however, have a natural immunity to prion attacks. A DNA test can establish the susceptibility of an animal to the disease. Gene Check, Inc. maintains that if a ram carries the resistant gene it will pass its natural immunity on to his offspring, obviating the need to conduct individual testing and eventually producing a disease free flock. http://www.genecheck.com/docfile/vetdiag_live_animal.pdf

Chronic Wasting Disease of deer as been found in Colorado (the first state, in 1960, to record the symptoms); Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wyoming, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Virginia, Utah, Saskatchewan and Alberta. To date, neither Chronic Wasting Disease nor Scrapie has crossed the species barrier to infect humans. Nevertheless, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) "Increasing spread of CWD [Chronic Wasting Disease] has raised concerns about the potential for increasing human exposure to the CWD agent. The foodborne transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy [Mad Cow Disease] to humans indicates that the species barrier may not completely protect humans from animal prion diseases. Conversion of human prion protein by CWD-associated prions has been demonstrated in an in vitro cell-free experiment, but limited investigations have not identified strong evidence for CWD transmission to humans. More epidemiologic and laboratory studies are needed to monitor the possibility of such transmissions." http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol10no6/03-1082.htm

Scrapie, the prion disease of sheep, had been known in Europe since the 18th century. In 1936 it was formally described by French researchers. Scrapie was first diagnosed in the U.S. in 1947 in sheep that had been imported from Canada. It occurs throughout the world, excepting New Zealand and Australia. A related disease found in humans, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, was first described in 1921 by two German scientists. Scientific recognition of several other universally known human prion diseases quickly followed. In 1959 an American veterinarian theorized that Scrapie was analogous to Kuru, a fatal human neurological disease found among cannibals in New Guinea. Later experiments established that Kuru was related to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

In the 1960s it was first theorized that the disease was caused by wayward proteins. This was disputed by other scientists until, in subsequent decades, supportive evidence of the protein theory was adduced.

Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists believe that the genesis of Chronic Wasting Disease of deer occurred around that first 1960 notice of symptoms, the assumption being that the Scrapie prion mutated into CWD. It is impossible to determine the infection rate of U.S. herds. The September 2008 Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation published a 2002 study conducted of white tail deer in a captive Wisconsin facility which found that 79% of the animals were infected with the prion although most of the animals had not displayed the recognizable symptoms. It was assumed that the rate among captive animals would naturally be higher than among wild animals. However, a 2009 report from Wisconsin's capital, Madison, revealed that "The prevalence rate for adult bucks (2.5 years and older) in the western core area... went from 10% in 2007 to 15.5% in 2008. The prevalence for yearling bucks went from 3% to 6%." The article cited "Recent studies of regional deer populations in Colorado and Wyoming - states where CWD likely has infected wild deer for several decades - are documenting high prevalence rates (20 to 40%) and lower survival of CWD-infected deer when compared to other deer in the other populations." http://chronic-wasting-disease.blogspot.com/2009/08/rate-of-cwd-infection-increases-in-core.html

While Scrapie and Chronic Wasting Disease were not known to cross species and infect humans, the suspicion in England is that in 1988 Scrapie mutated into Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease) which was able to infect humans with disastrous results. Because it was impossible to determine which animals were infected, Great Britain met the crisis with an extraordinary sense of responsibility: we all witnessed on TV the sad spectacle of thousands of cattle being slaughtered almost overnight.. and bulldozed into huge mass graves. Nevertheless, the unprecedented symptoms, unknown etiology, incubation period, and means of transmission allowed for many errors. People continued to die after contracting Prion diseases, particularly from what scientists believe is a Creutzfeldt-Jakob type variant of Mad Cow. Here is a sad British account: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wvxz-5lvUFg&feature=related

Also, in Kentucky in the 1990s, people who ate squirrels in a traditional dish, which contained the animal's brain, contracted a fatal prion disease similar to Creutzfeldt-Jacob. Laboratory experiments in Wyoming in 2005 established that when deer brains infected with Chronic Wasting Disease prions were fed to monkeys, the disease was transmitted to them. This established the vulnerability of at least one kind of primate.

Sheep, being commercial animals, have received attention from private sources; but deer are wild and the government has responded to the increasing population and contagion with its usual bureaucratic paralysis. Colorado, acting alone, recently engaged hunters to kill over two thousand deer and elk. Unfortunately, hunters cannot readily distinguish between sick and healthy animals. Wolves can.

American cattlemen have assiduously protected their herds from Mad Cow infection; but they would be remiss if they did not consider the potential threat from deer. So far there is no record of the Chronic Wasting Disease prion mutating into one that could infect cattle; but the prion's short and chaotic history contains too many deadly transformations to ignore. The only long-term solution would be to restore the natural balance of predator and prey. If the Cattlemen's Association has a glimmer of foresight, it will demand that wolves be re-introduced into any state that wants them - and without any federal interference.

Especially since no human wants to eat the meat of a possibly infected animal, the deer and elk population, without the checks and balances of natural predation, is going to continue to increase exponentially unless, of course, many deer succumb to the disease and litter our forests with their lethal carcasses. As things stand now, there is little sport in hunting even a large buck for trophy purposes. (Drive down any roadway during rutting season and a 12 point buck is likely to jump onto your grill.) Which brings us to the second enormous problem that deer and elk are causing.

State Farm estimates that every 26 seconds a deer causes a collision on U.S. roadways, and that the average cost of repairing a car is $3,050. The medical costs for the year 2007 were reported by Ecology and Society to average $2,702. for colliding with a deer; $5,403. for colliding with an elk; and $10,807 for colliding with a moose. The total cost of these accidents is estimated to cost more than 1.5 billion dollars annually. 150 people will die in these accidents. More than 10,000 will be seriously injured.

Throughout the states the collision rate involving deer has increased by an average of nearly 20% over the past five years. New Jersey and Nebraska saw the biggest increase, a whopping 54%. One of every thirty-nine drivers in West Virginia will hit a deer during the coming year.

Deer and elk do more than spread disease and create havoc on our roadways. Deer enter farmlands and destroy cash crops and orchards. The shortage of food also forces them to consume and thereby to destroy attempts to re-forest lands after logging. (They immediately consume the replacement saplings.) Additionally, they devour young birch and willow trees in the forest which harms populations of other animals, especially beaver and otter. Other native plants, which previously flourished, have disappeared because the deer have been forced to consume vegetation outside their normal fare.

Wolves, on the other hand, provide other beneficial services. As Disney filmed in 1983's Never Cry Wolf, they wolf-down rodents by the hundreds. In the mountains of the American southwest, rodent-transmitted bubonic plague and the hanta virus claim a few victims every year. Reducing the mouse and rat population is not a bad thing. Wolves shun human habitation and have never been known to attack humans. They prey upon coyotes that now, in unchecked numbers, prowl residential areas and do attack humans - especially young children and pets.

As to the southern red wolf, after decades of studying, and meeting, and wondering, and forming committees, and communicating hunches, vagaries, and other profundities, federal bureaucrats succeeded in re-introducing two and a half red wolves, and the animals - at least some of them - are expected to survive for at least as long as they are kept on the Endangered Species list. But the ratio of 30,000,000 U.S. deer to a few dozen U.S. red and grey wolves, is beginning to look like "a natural balance" to Washington and there is talk (you can believe this or not) about taking the wolves off the Endangered Species list.

It is always a mistake to layer federal bureaucrats on top of state agencies. Nothing gets done. Consider the devastating presence of Asian carp (large, bony, voracious, fish) that were imported by fish breeders in 1970. The carp escaped into waterways that fed into Lake Michigan and because they eat the young of native fish, they threatened the entire fishing industry of the Great Lakes. Here is a recent pathetic - but happy - announcement by the EPA: "To prevent the carp from entering the Great Lakes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. EPA, the State of Illinois, the International Joint Commission, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working together to install and maintain a permanent electric barrier between the fish and Lake Michigan." The snakehead is another fish problem that all these salaried employees will impotently ponder for another quarter century.

Experience has taught us that bureaucrats tend to generate controversy because controversy fuels delay which prolongs the quest for a solution and thereby preserves job security. If the prion disaster were not so serious, we might laugh at the bungling efforts of the various federal agencies.

Prions are a new and universal threat to mankind. No one is safe. In Europe, Feline Spongiform Encephalopathy is as likely to mutate into Mad Cow as Chronic Wasting Disease. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease occurs worldwide among humans. Physicians are beginning to suspect that many patients who were thought to have succumbed to Alzheimer's and to other neurological diseases may have been misdiagnosed.

The wolf is not an alien species. It is native to the United States. No studies have to be done about environmental impacts. The individual states know whether they need to re-introduce wolves and, if so, which of their forest lands would be the best place to put them. A citizen education program to explain the seriousness of prion contagion and to list ways of preventing predation of commercial animals can be done by the states. New methods can be tried. For example, there is a predator control method which exploits the territorial deference that wolves show to terrain occupied by other wolf packs. This method broadcasts from a farmer's land audio reproductions of howling that is specific to territorial claims. Wolves within hearing distance respect the claim and will not intrude. It may not work everywhere, but it is worth a try. This technique was successfully employed in Poland where wolves are strictly protected.

Defenders of Wildlife has already distributed $1.5 million of donated dollars to farmers and ranchers for the loss of animals killed by re-introduced wolves. Their efforts need to be supported.

Acting upon emotional impulses never produces an efficient or an expedient result. Zen's first rule is "detachment." When we remove emotional burdens from our thoughts, we think more clearly and can take a longer, broader view of the issues. We know that it isn't easy to free a life-and-death issue of emotional content, and that for every animal lover who weeps over the sad plight of wolves there is a rancher who grits his teeth in anguish when he sees a calf torn apart and eaten by wolves. It is when such responses elicit the support of organized pressure groups that the issue becomes political and is then dumped into the laps of a variety of bureaucratic agencies.

Knowing the benefits of tolerating wolves should convince a rancher that keeping them at bay is smarter than killing them. Regardless of differing philosophies or commercial interests, this problem affects us all. And simply because a disease has not spread to an area does not mean that it will never spread there. Virginia recorded its first case a few weeks ago.

Alaskan wolves have no doubt helped to keep Alaska's herds of deer and elk free of Chronic Wasting Disease. Again... although Alaska has large numbers of deer and elk, it also has large numbers of wolves and CWD is not found in Alaskan animals. Rather than kill their excess wolves, Alaskans ought to ship them down to the lower 48. Washington bureaucrats would not begin to know how to make this happen; but the Texas Cattlemen's Association could have it done next week.

Two of the thousands of deer collisions each year.

Photo credit: hymark.blogspot.com

Photo credit: fieldandstream.com

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