Alabama’s Mysterious Big-Nose Deer

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Bullwinkle disease is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation of tissue in a deer’s upper lip, nose, and mouth

The Bullwinkle disease can lead to inflammation of tissue in a deer’s upper lip, nose, and mouth. Image courtesy of Leif Birnbaum

Something about the 8-pointer looked weird. He was skinny and scuffed up, but that was not unusual during the peak rut. Johnny Sorensen tipped his can call, and the odd-looking deer made a beeline for the doe bleats. Johnny pulled the trigger and buck went down in a heap.

The Alabama hunter walked up and gawked. The buck’s 17-inch-wide rack was nice, but its swollen, bulbous nose was a sight to see.

The Bullwinkle disease is said to be caused by a bacterial infection. Image by Johnny Sorensen

Bullwinkle Disease

According to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS) at the University of Georgia, big-nose or “Bullwinkle disease” has been known to exist in whitetail deer only since 2005. No cases of the malady appear in 50 prior years of SCWDS files.

While big-nose deer have been documented from Minnesota to Texas to Georgia to Florida, Alabama is ground zero for the affliction. Dozens more Bullwinkle deer, both bucks and does, have been spotted or shot in Alabama than anywhere else. Scientists have no idea why that is.

Experts do know that the swollen muzzles of these deer result from chronic inflammation of tissues in the nose, mouth and / or upper lip. All of the cases studied by researchers in labs have shown similar colonies of bacteria in the inflamed tissues.

How and where deer acquire the Bullwinkle bacteria is unknown. “It’s not like anything else we’ve seen in deer,” said Kevin Keel of the University of California-Davis’s school of veterinary medicine, and the nation’s leading expert on the disease. “This is an interesting disease because we’re not sure if it’s new. It might be something that’s always occurred in deer, but at such a low prevalence that maybe it was always there, we just didn’t know it.”

While Bullwinkle doesn’t appear to be fatal to deer, Keel notes that many animals with chronic bacterial infection suffer weight loss that weakens the animals. He adds that since most cases of the disease are random, “It doesn’t seem to have any impact on overall populations.”

If You Shoot a Bullwinkle

Keel and other scientists say the long-term nature of a big-nose infection could mean that bacteria are present in the blood and muscle of the meat, or a secondary infection could also have developed in the deer. Better safe than sorry, so you should not process and eat the meat.

On the off chance that you or a buddy shoots a Bullwinkle, try to preserve the deer’s head in cold storage. Call a game warden or local wildlife office. Hopefully authorities will collect a tissue sample from the deer and send it to a lab for testing so that we may learn more about this rare and mysterious malady.

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