Some New Brunswick hunters who eat the hearts of moose are wondering if they can keep the tradition alive after finding white spots on some of the organs this year.

"I've been hunting moose for 25 years and we always save the heart," hunter Charles Leblanc wrote on Facebook. "We cook it up at the camp and everybody loves it. Has anyone else seen white spot on their moose heart this year? For us, it's the first time."

Leblanc lives in Cocagne but hunted this year near Harcourt.

Two of the five moose he and his family killed had the white spots, which gave the seasoned hunter a bad feeling.

"Nobody wanted to take a chance and try them," Leblanc said over the phone Wednesday.

The first infected heart he came across only had a few spots but the second one was full of them.

After his Facebook post, other hunters chimed in with similar experiences.

Tastes like liver

Eating moose heart has been a "treat" Leblanc has enjoyed since he began hunting with his father-in-law in 1993.

"It tastes best when cut thinly and cooked on a barbecue like a slice of steak," Leblanc said.

Charles Leblanc

Charles Leblanc says the white spots on the moose hearts were the first he's seen since he began hunting in 1993. (Submitted by Charles Leblanc)

"Everybody loves it. It's basically like liver. It's less strong than liver. You cut it all up and fry it in butter."

Leblanc, whose diet depends on moose meat for part of the year, is concerned the white spots on the heart have greater consequences.

"My concern is, is there something wrong with the rest of the meat from that moose? We haven't talked to the meat cutter yet. He might find those white spots in the meat."

Parasite is likely

Although several ideas about the abnormalities have floated around online, wildlife pathologist Pierre-Yves Daoust suspects a parasite.

"The first thing that crossed my mind is parasitic larvae," said the professor at University of Prince Edward Island. "There are number of different parasites that can do that.

"Most of them should not be a concern for human consumption."

'I wouldn't eat that heart and one should be careful to keep entrails away from dogs.' - Bob Bancroft, wildlife expert

But with only a photo to study, Daoust said it's hard to determine what parasite got into Leblanc's moose hearts.

It appears to be at the intermediate stage, Doaust said, and would need the intestines of a carnivore, such as a wolf or a coyote, to mature.

"Most of these parasites could not do this to a human," he said. "We're not its final host."

"Having said that, it would not be advisable for anyone to eat these cysts. But in all those cases, the cyst would be destroyed by proper cooking of the meat."

Both Dr. Jim Goltz, veterinarian and pathologist for the New Brunswick government, and Bob Bancroft, a wildlife expert, agreed with the diagnosis.

Pierre-Yves Daoust

Wildlife pathologist Pierre-Yves Daoust thinks the white spots on the moose hearts are parasitic larvae, and advises hunters not to eat affected organs. The meat, however, should be all right. (Submitted by Pierre-Yves Daoust)

"The structures are likely tapeworm cysts, but I'd need a specimen to be sure," Goltz wrote in an email Wednesday.

"There are several possibilities here — most are immature stages of three tapeworm species that also infect dogs and wolves," Bancroft said, also by email.

"These immature stages can be found on the lungs, liver, spleen, heart and kidneys.

"Each cyst has lots of immature tapeworms. I wouldn't eat that heart and one should be careful to keep entrails away from dogs."

Extent of infection not known

Daoust said he couldn't speculate about much else because he hasn't received many samples from hunters.

"Again, if these are parasitic larvae, they are not uncommon. But I could not tell you if there are 100 moose killed, there is only one affected like this."

Luckily for Leblanc, Daoust said, there's hope yet.

"I would not recommend that the entire carcasses be condemned," he said. "It may not have affected the animal whatsoever."