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Photo: Natural Habitat
Wolves could be the solution to culling deer, moose, and elk that have a brain-wasting ailment. The fear is that the disease could jump to humans because cooking doesn’t kill it.

As the story goes, a wolf protected and raised the human twins Romulus and Remus, which somehow led to the founding of Rome. The notion that a wolf could suckle a human baby has a universal appeal, if not much biological support. It certainly has spawned a lot of art.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Lupa Capitolina: she-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Bronze, 13th century AD (the twins are a 15th-century addition).

What are the chances wolves could protect us now?

Scientists concerned that a deadly cervid disease similar to ‘mad cow’ could jump to humans are asking if wolves might detect and destroy weakened animals before people can.

Jim Robbins writes at the New York Times, “Are the wolves of Yellowstone National Park the first line of defense against a terrible disease that preys on herds of wildlife?

“That’s the question for a research project underway in the park, and preliminary results suggest that the answer is yes. Researchers are studying what is known as the predator cleansing effect, which occurs when a predator sustains the health of a prey population by killing the sickest animals. If the idea holds, it could mean that wolves have a role to play in limiting the spread of chronic wasting disease, which is infecting deer and similar animals across the country and around the world. Experts fear that it could one day jump to humans. …

“Chronic wasting disease, a contagious neurological disease, is so unusual that some experts call it a ‘disease from outer space.’ First discovered among wild deer in 1981, it leads to deterioration of brain tissue in cervids, mostly deer but also elk, moose and caribou. …

“It is caused by an abnormal version of a cell protein called a prion, which functions very differently than bacteria or viruses. … The disease is part of a group called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, the most famous of which is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease. Mad cow in humans causes a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and there was an outbreak among people in the 1990s in Britain from eating tainted meat.

“Cooking does not kill the prions, and experts fear that chronic wasting disease could spread to humans who hunt and consume deer or other animals that are infected with it.

“The disease has infected many deer herds in Wyoming, and it spread to Montana in 2017. Both states are adjacent to Yellowstone, so experts are concerned that the deadly disease could soon make its way into the park’s vast herds of elk and deer.

“Unless, perhaps, the park’s 10 packs of wolves, which altogether contain about 100 individuals, preyed on and consumed diseased animals that were easier to pick off because of their illness (the disease does not appear to infect wolves). …

“ ‘Wolves have really been touted as the best type of animal to remove infected deer, because they are cursorial — they chase their prey and they look for the weak ones,’ said [Ellen Brandell, a doctoral student in wildlife ecology at Penn State University who is leading the project]. By this logic, diseased deer and other animals would be the most likely to be eliminated by wolves. …

“[Ken McDonald, chief of the wildlife division of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department,] said that maintaining a large enough wolf population outside of Yellowstone to control chronic wasting disease would require so many wolves that it would be socially unacceptable, especially to ranchers and hunters.

“The state’s approach to controlling the disease, he said, is to increase the number of deer that can be killed in places where the disease is growing.

“Ms. Brandell, however, said that wolves may detect the disease long before it becomes apparent to people, through smell or a slight change in the movement of prey, which could be beneficial.

“ ‘Wolves wouldn’t be a magic cure everywhere,’ [Ms. Brandell] said. ‘But in places where it was just starting and you have an active predator guild, they could keep it at bay and it might never get a foothold.’ ”

More here.

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I’ve told the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” many times to my oldest grandchild and was delighted that he responded with a wide grin when I later used — in a completely different context — the phrase “It was just ri-ight.” Everybody in the world seems to know those words from the Grimms’ fairy tale.

So when the audience heard the phrase Sunday in a locally flavored skit to benefit the island medical center, the line got a laugh. One of many.

In this case, the familiar plot points (porridge too hot, door not locked, trespassing girl) had been repurposed into the trial of Gold E. Locks, whom the Three Deer accused of bad manners for the usual (entering uninvited, eating the porridge all up, breaking the chair, sleeping in the bed).

Citigroup Chairman Richard Parsons played the judge and Christopher Walken’s wife, Georgianne, was the jury foreman. (“You’re not the foreman!” declared an indignant deer on the jury. “You’re just a Walk-in.”) But many of the biggest laughs were garnered by those who are famous only locally.

The story really had to be about deer because one of the biggest challenges the medical center has today is diagnosing and treating disease borne by deer ticks. (Three deer introduced to the island in the 1950s multiplied into a major problem. Lots of jokes about the people responsible.)

As unpolished as the entertainment was, the packed house was hugely supportive. In fact, the audience joined the fray. When the honorable counsel for the Locks family charged that the deer home with the open door and fragrant porridge was an “attractive nuisance,” a man in the back shouted, “Do you charge by the minute or the hour?” The answer: “I charge the same rate I charge in Manhattan.”

OK. Maybe you had to be there. The main story I took away was how many people wanted to donate to the medical center and how indulgent and open that made them. And yes, I laughed at all the jokes.

More here.

Photo:  John Freidah/The Providence Journal files /

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