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Worthington, Minn. — There's a mountain lion in Brian Almberg's living room. Dozens of fox pelts hang along a wall downstairs. His home doubles as a studio and an art gallery. There's a distinctive aroma of tanned hide. The work area has a huge buffalo head, a partially finished fox and stacks of bear and deer hides. Brian Almberg is a taxidermist.
"Usually when someone brings me a deer they bring it whole in the back of their truck, and I go out and do it right in the back of their truck. Take the skin off," says Almberg.
It sometimes comes as a surprise to non-hunters how little of a deer ends up in a mount. Usually it's only the skin and antlers mounted and stretched over a styrofoam and wood form.
Almberg says sometimes hunters bring in a deer head with extra hide attached.
"Usually they sever the neck right back behind the ears. So I need to skin this whole part off of the head," he says.
And that's where Brian Almberg gets a little cautious. He now needs to get the antlers safely. Almberg saws off the top of the skull, to keep the antlers in place. He cleans off the meat and scrapes the brain matter. Chronic wasting disease is believed to lodge in deer brains.
"A lot of it gets fed to the dogs -- not the brain matter. That type of thing I usually take out and bury," says Almberg. "I don't know how others dispose of it, but I don't send it to the landfill. I think it's the safest to just dig a hole a deep hole with a spade and bury it."
There isn't a lot of brain matter - a couple of tablespoons. Then he boils the skull plate.
Brian Almberg wears gloves when skinning a deer or elk. It's a new habit for him. But he's had friends who have gotten blood infections when handling dead animals. Almberg says chronic wasting disease isn't at the top of his list of worries.
"Rabies ... and infections and parasites and ticks -- you need to watch for that. Lyme disease, as far as I'm concerned -- I have a better chance of getting that than CWD. This is something we don't even know yet if it can transfer from deer to humans, or vice versa," says Almberg.
There are a lot of unknowns this deer season. There are few government regulations guiding taxidermists. Almberg hasn't been told how to dispose of any brain waste. He hasn't been told if there are any regulations on importing deer carcasses from other states. He really hasn't been told anything about chronic wasting disease.
Ed Boggess is the assistant director of the Minnesota DNR Division of Wildlife. He says if a taxidermist gets a deer from Minnesota, there's no need to change how they do business.
"Even if we had CWD in the wild, we would have deer dying naturally of the disease, and decomposing in the wild and things like that," says Boggess. "Burial is probably as good of an option as any to keep it from coming in contact with additional deer, which is how the disease would spread most likely."
Boggess says there are specific areas from five states where CWD was found in wild deer or elk. Those states are Colorado, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Any deer or elk carcass from specific counties in those states are not allowed in Minnesota. Boggess says a county in northern Illinois recently found CWD and will be added to the advisory list.
"If they have a trophy deer or elk they can bring back the cape, which is the hide from the neck and the head. They can bring back the antlers or the clean skull plate," says Boggess. "That's what we're advising that they do -- not bring back the whole thing. Or they can have a taxidermist in the state where they got it do the work."
Boggess says hunters need to check regulations from the state where they hunt. First they need to know if it's in a CWD zone, and what that state's regulations are for transporting deer carcasses. Boggess says all the DNR can do is advise hunters this year about what to do. There are no permanent regulations in place about importing or disposing of deer carcasses.
"There's no regulations this year to these carcass parts that are OK or not OK. But we do plan to go to the Legislature in the 2003 session and put all this into specific regulations," he says.
Boggess says many states, including Minnesota, need to do a better job of testing deer for disease.
Worthington taxidermist Brian Almberg says his business could pick up because of the CWD scare. He says the hunters who are out there will be more likely to look for a trophy than meat.
"But I think mostly it's going to be the hard core diehards that are still going to be out there hunting," says Almberg. Sure they're going to be looking for a bigger animal, maybe. But even if they don't, I think that just their example -- people will see in time that this isn't what it's made out to be, and people will still hunt and still eat the meat."
Almberg says the only thing that could limit his business is a direct result of the drought in parts of the region. He says deer didn't get proper nutrients in the spring as their racks were growing. He says hunters could see smaller and deformed antlers this year.
Almberg gets much of his business from a partner in Colorado. He tans pelts and does life-size bear and deer mounts. He's also starting a side business of making replica antlers. Collectors, museums and even sporting goods stores buy replica antlers for a fraction of the cost, since racks of real antlers can go for around $10,000.