An infectious disease has affected deer throughout the country, leaving holes in the brain and emaciated body.
This is what is called Chronic Debilitating Disease (CDD) and it leaves dying animals a zombie appearance in their last days.
The disease has never been found in New Jersey. But it is spreading to the United States – until now documented in 26 states, including New York and Pennsylvania – and state officials and hunters worry about the future deer in the Garden State.
The MDC was first identified in Colorado in the 1960s in a mule deer herd in captivity. The disease, which is linked to mad cow disease, affects the deer as well as other members of the cervid family such as elk and moose.
Carole Stanko, head of the New Jersey Bureau of Wildlife Management, said a deer may be suffering from the disease for two years without presenting any symptoms. Meanwhile, the disease is eating holes in the animal's brain. The physical symptoms – described by Stanko as emaciation and a generally depressed appearance – begin to manifest as the disease reaches its final stage.
These symptoms have led to the nickname "zombie" of the disease, although scientists such as Stanko and hunters believe that this description undermines the seriousness of the problem.
"That makes it a joke, but it's really not the case," said Cody McLaughlin, spokesperson for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance. "This prevents hunters from sleeping at night."
According to Stanko, there is no evidence that humans can contract MDC.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Division of New Jersey, last August, the state had tested nearly 7,500 deer against MDC since 1997. No signs of the disease have yet been found in New Jersey.
But the disease is not so far away. Deer with CWD have been found in Pennsylvania and New York, according to Stanko, although New York has had no cases since 2005 and is currently considered free from the disease.
McLaughlin said the hunters were worried about the potential devastation of the New Jersey deer population if the disease spread to Garden State.
"I've heard horror stories from friends in the West and Midwest, where that decimates the flock," said McLaughlin.
New Jersey banned the import of live deer and other cervids in 2002. But this is not the only measure taken by the state to prevent the spread of CWD, Stanko said. New Jersey has also warned hunters to pay attention to the deer that they harvest in other states.
"Just bring the meat back and bring nothing else. [to New Jersey]Stanko said. This should keep us safe.
Stanko said that the state continued to explore options to strengthen CDW prevention measures. A step that could be imminent: the ban on hunters bringing whole deer carcasses to New Jersey from other states.
Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips
Get the latest updates directly in your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com newsletters.