Quebec deer disease means popular Rudolph stand-ins sidelined, for now

The government says the animals, a fixture at Christmas parades and events in the province, need to stay penned as investigations continue to determine the extent of the disease.

Deer owner says he stands to lose up to $40K this year if his deer are not allowed to travel

Serge Michaud attends a parade with a deer that he trained in this undated handout photo. (Serge Michaud, SM Evenements Speciaux Inc./Facebook/Canadian Press handout)

Quebec's efforts to control a deadly deer disease may end up depriving the province of a couple of popular Rudolph stand-ins this holiday season.

The province has been grappling with chronic wasting disease detected this year in three farm-raised deer. And Serge Michaud and the red deer he named Rudolph 1 and Rudolph 2 are feeling the impact.

Michaud said he was told last week the animals, a fixture at Christmas parades and events in the province, need to stay penned as investigations continue to determine the extent of the disease.

He was forced to cancel a parade appearance in Rivière-du-Loup​, Que., last Saturday.

"They embody Rudolph — the companion of Santa Claus — and we dress up as elves and take part in Christmas parades, at product launches, for photos with the public," Michaud explained.

The province's Wildlife Department confirmed in September that chronic wasting disease had been detected in a farm-raised animal that was sent to slaughter in late August.

Since then, two more cases were confirmed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Biologists worried disease could spread

The disease, similar to mad cow disease, is an infection of the central nervous system that afflicts deer, elk, reindeer and moose. While it can go undetected for years, the condition eventually causes poor health, behavioural changes, disorientation and death.

Biologists have raised fears the highly contagious disease has the potential to decimate the wild deer population if it spreads.

Michaud said his animals are both healthy and are seen regularly by a veterinarian. They were born on a livestock farm and have been with Michaud since they were a day old.

"They've never lived in a herd," he said.

Hunting and trapping white-tailed deer is prohibited until Nov. 18 in a roughly 400-square-kilometre area that includes parts of the Laurentians and Outaouais. (Marc-Antoine Mageau/Radio-Canada)

The deer both have a bit of star power — Rudolph 1's first public appearance was with the Cirque de Soleil while Rudolph 2 appeared in the Hollywood blockbuster X-Men: Apocalypse.

The province's Agriculture Ministry informed Michaud of the travel ban last Friday.

In September, officials banned hunting, trapping and off-road activities within a 400-kilometre radius of the farm where the infection was detected. That includes Oka, where Michaud's animals live.

The disease first emerged in the 1960s in the United States. It is nearly impossible to eradicate once it becomes established in the general population. It has spread to 25 U.S. states as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Quebec has modelled its intervention plan on that of New York State, which is believed to be the only jurisdiction to have successfully eliminated the disease.

Deer owner says he could lose $40K

"We haven't finished our investigations, so we're simply not taking any risks," Yohan Dallaire-Boily, an Agriculture Ministry spokesperson, said of the need for controls.

Michaud said he stands to lose up to $40,000 this year if his deer are not allowed to travel. "The schedule was booked solid, sometimes three events a day," he said.

He acknowledged it might take a Christmas miracle of sorts to get the Rudolphs back on the road.

"We'll leave the door open in the event we get an exemption," he said.