What is a ‘zombie deer’? Sightings increase in Southern Ohio, Indiana

Gnats blamed for spreading disease among deer.

CINCINNATI — They’re not out trick-or-treating early or trying to eat the flesh of the living, but so-called “zombie deer” have been spotted in Colerain Twp. in Hamilton Co. and other parts of Cincinnati. Cases have also been reported in Indiana.

Colerain Twp. police officers said one such deer was reported to them earlier this week. When they arrived at the deer on the side of Blue Rock Road, officers said it was standing there, staring off into the distance. It was unfazed by sirens or officers shouting at it and appeared to have strange patches of fur with discolored skin.

A warden with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources told Colerain officials the west side of Cincinnati has been “getting hit hard lately” with the deer, which are suffering from Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD). The Indiana Department of Natural Resources also announced cases of EHD have been seen in Indiana. Joe Caudell, state research biologist for the DNR, said it is a normal disease deer get.

“We always have a few deer that die from it every year,” Caudell said.

The disease, which does not affect humans and doesn’t pose serious risks to livestock, comes with symptoms like disorientation and a lack of fear of humans.

Deer with this disease may appear feverish, have a pronounced swelling of their head, neck, tongue and eyelids and may display weakness, circling and other odd neurological signs.

“Sometimes we get reports of them having patchy hair and we think that’s just from them rolling around on the ground. Basically these deer have a high fever, and so there are often times found around water they’re found disoriented around water they may be walking in circles,” Caudell said.

The disease is caused by a virus that deteriorates less than 24 hours after the deer’s death and cannot be spread after death. However, the deadly disease does decrease the population size, which means there are fewer deer to hunt.

“When you see deer die like that and go to waste it’s really sad,” McKee said. “I’d rather see a resource like that be utilized to feed a family, or provide memories, or food for a year to a family.”

EHD is common in the United States — it kills deer each year, though some do recover. Cases typically peak in the late summer and early fall, but decline after the first frost, when the biting gnats that cause it — called midge flies — are greatly reduced in numbers.

Caudell said Indiana experiences a big outbreak every five to seven years, and the last one was in 2019. He noted some counties like Franklin and Dearborn County see an uptick in EHD a couple years after the big outbreak, but he said these outbreaks are becoming more common.

“Even in states that didn’t really have large outbreaks in the past of EHD are experiencing these regular occurrences,” he said.

WCPO is a content partner of Cox First Media.

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