In the mid-1990s while on a self-guided brown bear hunt on the Alaska Peninsula, I slashed the index finger of my left hand almost to the bone while skinning my bear out. “No biggie,” I remember thinking. I got the bleeding stopped, my buddy Bo and I flew back to Anchorage that afternoon, dropped the hide off at the taxidermist, and the next morning flew to Kodiak Island, where we spent a week hunting Sitka blacktail out of a backpack camp 2 hours by float plane from civilization.
We shot several deer, and I butchered them as usual. About 3 days into the trip, my cut finger started swelling. It enlarged so much it became increasingly painful, so much so that when we landed back in the town of Kodiak I went straight to the hospital. They gave me some pills and sent me home to Valdez, but the pain and swelling never subsided.
Fortunately there was an old-timer living across the street who had been a doctor along the Bering Sea for many years. He recognized the problem instantly, having seen the same thing many times on native Alaskans who had been skinning seals. “If we don’t get that infection stopped immediately, we will have to take that finger off,” he told me. “And if that doesn’t stop it, the hand is next.”
After 3 weeks of massive antibiotics the infection was killed, but not before it ate away part of the bone. To this day when the weather turns cold that finger turns white and throbs as if it were on fire.
That was before I knew how important it is to wear latex or rubber gloves when field-dressing game.
Mine is not an isolated incident. For example, in 2012 a Pennsylvania hunter contracted rabies after killing and field-dressing a deer. “Because the hunter had scratches on his hands and arms and was not wearing gloves when he field-dressed the animal, we considered this a human exposure and urged him to contact his doctor about post-exposure rabies shots,” said John Veylupek, a PA conservation officer.
There are lots of “gotchas” that can be contracted from field-dressing deer and other big game. Veterinarians at Oklahoma State University have identified 28 internal and external parasites on whitetails in Oklahoma alone. Ticks are easy to identify, but most parasites are invisible to the human eye. Some, like nematodes, are small worms that are not only visible but downright creepy. They can measure up to three inches long and live on or in various internal organs.
They might turn your stomach, but none of these pose any threat to humans, according to Dr. Mike Dunbar, a wildlife research biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado — but plenty of other things will. There’s Lyme disease, something nobody wants. And how about Epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, a virus spread by biting midges, tiny flies that serve as the disease’s host. EHD is prevalent in the South and Southeast and has responsible for large-scale deer die-offs at times. It’s also been detected in whitetails in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but also scattered other locations.
Today I always head afield with gloves in my pack. Many people like the type of latex gloves medical personnel use, but I prefer thicker rubber gloves like those used for washing dishes.
Had any bad experiences with field dressing without gloves? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.