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How to Field Dress a Deer

By Clayton Wolf

Knowing where to cut will ensure the safety of your venison.

Though chronic wasting disease (CWD) has not been found in Texas, discussions of this fatal brain malady of deer and elk likely will arise at the deer camp this fall and winter. CWD belongs to a group of prion diseases similar to mad-cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep. However, according to the World Health Organization, there is no current evidence that CWD can infect humans. Nonetheless, as a precaution, deer or elk with evidence of CWD should not be consumed by people or other animals. For that matter, hunters should refrain from harvesting and eating any animal that appears sick or acts strangely.

Scientists believe that CWD is caused by a protein called a prion. Prions concentrate in areas with nerve tissue such as the brain, spinal cord, eyes, tonsils, spleen and lymph nodes. Prions have not been found in muscle tissue. Therefore, when processing a deer, precautionary measures are aimed at removing prion-prone tissues and ensuring that knives and saw blades used on this nervous tissue are not used on the meat (muscle tissue).

Once a deer has been harvested and tagged, the next step is to eviscerate (field dress) the deer on-site or at the camp. This process will remove the spleen and some of the lymph nodes adjacent to internal organs, which can be hard to recognize for many people. Hunters should always wear rubber or latex gloves while processing game animals to protect themselves from a variety of diseases that can potentially pass to humans.

Next, the hide must be removed. Although there are many ways to skin a deer, hanging the carcass from the hind legs and skinning down toward the head will allow the weight of the hide and head to assist the hunter when severing the spinal column, and minimize the chances of getting spinal fluid on the rest of the carcass. When severing the spinal column, use a knife designated solely for this purpose, inserting the tip of the blade between the vertebrae, cutting the cartilaginous tissue while prying apart the vertebrae.

Once the internal organs, hide and head are removed, the carcass is ready to be quartered for storage and transportation in an ice chest if necessary. When quartering the carcass, the hind legs should be removed by placing the tip of the knife in the hip socket, and working it around the ball joint, cutting cartilage until the leg bone can be easily separated from the hip socket. Do not cut the bone. When the carcass has reached the final destination, the process of “boning out” the meat can begin. Care should be taken to remove all the fat and connective tissue from the muscle as well. This will ensure the removal of the remaining lymph nodes which are imbedded in this connective tissue (see diagram).

If the antlers are to be cut from the skull, use a saw blade designated solely for this purpose and then discard the blade. When processing is complete, knives and other cleaning equipment should be cleaned by soaking in a 50-50 solution of bleach and water for one hour. For more information on CWD see the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site at www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

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