“It seems like a sign of panic to take a step like this. It gives the impression that the authorities have an extreme need for control in many ways. The animals will end up not being animals because they are controlled so tightly,” Ketil Skogen a senior researcher at NINA, told broadcaster NRK.
The Norwegian Food Safety Authority (Mattilsynet) says it has taken criticism of its decision into account but must follow the recommendations of the food safety committee report used as the basis for the decision to kill the animals.
“We are not certain we will be successful. And we know some people think we are acting to hastily and invasively. We want healthy reindeer herds in the future,” veterinarian Julie Enebo Grimstad of Mattilsynet told NRK.
Chronic-wasting disease (CWD), a cousin of mad-cow disease and already present in North America, causes deer brains to turn spongy, leading to loss of weight and death.
It is contagious among deer and reindeer but not known to pass from animals to humans.
The disease was detected for the first time in Europe last year in Norway, with three known cases of reindeer infected in a single herd and two other cases among moose – though the latter cases were considered to be of less concern since moose do not live in herds.
To prevent the spread of the disease, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority – which oversees animal health issues – called for the slaughter of the affected herd, which has between 2,000 and 2,200 wild reindeer living in the southwestern mountainous region of Nordfjella.
A radio-tracked animal in the region found in March last year was the first to test positive for the disease.
After three further cases, authorities decided that that a 2,000-storing herd must be slaughtered.
“In an environment in which carnivores such as wolves, bears and wolverine live, [weakened] animals such as these would be hunted early,” Skogen told NRK.
The researcher said that the cause of the spread of the disease was still unknown.
It may be caught from sheep with scratch-related sickness, from other types of deer, or from a mutation in the brains of the reindeer themselves, he said.
A second researcher at NINA, who was part of the committee that recommended the cull, confirmed that the cause of the disease spread was unknown.
“We would like to know more about infection pathways. But the knowledge we have is enough to tell us that way have to act fast and take this seriously,” Olav Strand told NRK.
Mattilsynet says that waiting longer to decide the fate of the animals is not an option.
“Even though this is dramatic, it is necessary,” Grimstad said.
Skogen told the broadcaster that his assessment was different.
“When there is so much uncertainty and the response so drastic, you can ask yourself whether it would be more sensible to wait,” he said.