Reprinted from Aug. 19, 2018
Wildlife agencies are forever printing brochures, updating websites and cranking out press releases to educate hunters and their families about chronic wasting disease, but much of their work sits ignored and unclicked by readers and media members.
If agencies truly want to teach the masses why CWD matters, and why folks should trust government biologists, here’s an idea: Steer everyone to two high-profile podcasts that discussed CWD with wit, depth and serious science.
On Aug. 8, 2018, “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast (podcasts.joerogan.net) devoted a compelling two hours and 17 minutes to CWD. The episode, No. 1,154, had 456,000 viewings on YouTube and roughly 3 million audio downloads a week later.
Earlier, the “MeatEater Podcast with Steven Rinella” (themeateater.com) spent an equally fascinating two hours and 21 minutes on CWD. That episode, No. 70, was soon downloaded hundreds of thousands of times from several podcast platforms, including Apple iTunes, Android and Stitcher.
A 140-minute podcast might sound long, but fear not. These podcasts deliver information in a convenient, entertaining, easily digestible format that people devour while commuting, working or exercising.
It helps to have skilled hosts, of course. Rogan, 54, is an actor, comedian, taekwondo champion, mixed-martial-arts commentator and former host of “Fear Factor,” “The Man Show” and “Joe Rogan Questions Everything.” He didn’t grow up hunting, but became one of its greatest advocates after Rinella – an award-winning author, magazine writer and host of the “MeatEater" podcast and TV show on Netflix – guided him down the Missouri River in Montana to hunt mule deer in 2012. Rogan killed a buck on that hunt, which he calls an adventure that “bridged (his) disconnect between a living animal becoming food.”
Rogan flew to Wisconsin in November 2013 to hunt white-tailed deer with Rinella, 47, and his friend Doug Duren, 63, whose family has farmed 100 years near Cazenovia in Richland County. Duren’s friendships with Rinella and Rogan — along with his hunting, forestry and farming expertise — have made him a frequent guest on Rinella’s programs, and a podcast guest and sounding board for Rogan.
Although Duren’s farm didn’t have CWD in 2013, the disease was never far from his thoughts. And when something is in Duren’s thoughts it’s also on his tongue, which meant Rinella and Rogan heard much about CWD. That’s especially true for Rinella, who has hunted Duren’s farm several times since 2010 for deer, ducks, squirrels, rabbits and wild turkeys.
Unlike many deer hunters, however, Duren doesn’t pretend to know the science and research surrounding CWD. So when Rinella invited him to discuss it on a podcast in May 2017, Duren suggested including Bryan Richards, CWD team leader with the U.S. Geological Survey in Madison. That podcast, recorded at Duren’s farmhouse, instantly became a can’t-miss, authoritative CWD discussion for the masses.
Things got personal between Duren and CWD in autumn 2017 when two healthy-looking 2.5-year-old bucks shot on his farm tested positive for the always-fatal disease. Duren felt devastated but not shocked. He had tested every hunter-killed deer on his farm the previous five years, and all were clean.
These two bucks looked healthy, too, but the tests proved CWD had closed the 70-mile gap between Duren’s farm and the disease’s core area the previous 15 years.
When Duren told Rogan the bad news in June 2018 when meeting in Chicago, the comedian scheduled a CWD discussion for “The Joe Rogan Experience,” one of the world’s most popular podcasts since its launch in 2009. That’s not hyperbole. By October 2016, JRE podcasts were getting downloaded 16 million times monthly.
Rogan flew farmer Duren and biologist Richards to Los Angeles on Aug. 7, 2018, and they recorded their CWD podcast the next morning. To grasp that significance, consider that Rogan’s guest a day earlier was actor Macaulay Culkin, and his guests the next two days were actor, writer/comedian Henry Rollins; and comedian/political commentator Jimmy Dore.
Imagine that: Rogan produced a show featuring a wildlife disease, a USGS biologist and a Wisconsin farmer; and sandwiched it between three famous Hollywood talents. That’s confidence, right? But why?
“I thought the subject was interesting, and that’s really the only motivation I need to do a podcast on something,” Rogan said when contacted by email. “I felt (CWD) warranted a deeper examination, and I felt fortunate that … Richards was willing to come on the show and educate us. It felt like a perfect opportunity for me to learn, and to get that information out there so other people could also learn.”
Rogan said the episode’s downloads and feedback were strong, and that he likes discussing important subjects the mainstream media overlook. “CWD certainly falls into that category,” he said. “It’s something that people who enjoy the podcast like about it, too, so in that sense it was certainly a success.”
Rogan expressed concern and irritation during the podcast about CWD’s worsening spread, and said efforts to control it sounded like “putting band-aids on massive gunshot wounds.”
In his email interview with me, Rogan also said CWD put some fear and apprehension into eating what he kills.
“The disease hasn’t made the jump to humans, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility,” Rogan wrote. “And the thought of its potentially long incubation period is extra disturbing. I would definitely hunt Doug’s property again, but even though no one has ever contracted CWD from deer, I wouldn’t eat an animal that tested positive for it. … I definitely don’t want to be patient zero if it makes the jump to humans.”
Rogan acknowledges that some listeners downplay CWD’s risks to deer and people, but he doesn’t consider such views wise or rational.
“People become inexorably connected to their initial positions on a subject, and then continue to argue from that position regardless of the facts,” Rogan wrote. “The sheer numbers of deer testing positive for CWD, and the fact it’s 100 percent fatal should be incredibly disturbing to anyone looking at this objectively. People are capable of holding onto and arguing incredibly foolish ideas if it benefits them, and I absolutely think that’s what we’re seeing here with people who are in denial about CWD’s dangers.”
Joe Rogan, left, interviews Bryan Richards, center, and Doug Duren on the ‘Joe Rogan Experience’ podcast Aug. 8, 2018, in Los Angeles. — The Joe Rogan Experience photo
Deer afflicted with CWD look healthy until their final few weeks of life. These two bucks appeared healthy when captured in February 2018 by the Wisconsin DNR. Tissue samples, however, revealed both bucks had CWD. — Patrick Durkin photo