Conservation Wildlife Management

Purple Buck with Bullwinkle Condition Euthanized for Severe Symptoms

Agency officials chose euthanasia after discovering the deer was struggling with muscle wasting, loss of fat, and swollen lymph nodes
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purple deer with bullwinkle syndrom

The young buck was grazing in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Tony Gedaro / Facebook

A whitetail buck suffering from swelling and purple discoloration on its head, neck, and chest has been euthanized, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife told CBS 13 Tuesday.

After reports of the visibly ill deer surfaced in early September, agency officials only intended to monitor the deer’s health. Upon further inspection, however, they discovered the deer was suffering from wasting muscle tissue, reduced fat deposits, swollen lymph nodes, and other issues. Some symptoms indicated that the deer had Bullwinkle disease. These issues prompted the eventual choice to put the buck down.

Sept. 11, 2023. On Aug. 31, a Maine wildlife photographer snapped pictures of a young whitetail buck covered in fluid-filled growths. It had a swollen nose and mouth, along with a giant purple stain on its head and neck. Now, wildlife biologists are trying to figure out what ails the deer.

Tony Gedaro was driving through Cape Elizabeth when he took the photos, according to the Bangor Daily News. He shared them to a Facebook page dedicated to wildlife in Maine, noting that he had sent the photos to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Two days later, he posted an update.

“This is going to fall into the ‘we can’t know for sure without doing an exam and collecting samples’ category,” Gedaro wrote on Sept. 2. “The suggestion that came up most commonly … was some sort of seroma, which would be an accumulation of fluid associated most often with trauma or infection. Also suggested were an unusual manifestation of ‘Bullwinkle’ condition, severe bottle jaw, a large abscess, hypoproteinemia, or fluid accumulation associated with conjunctive heart failure.”

purple bullwinkle deer maine
The buck's distinct purple splotches are confusing most wildlife experts. Tony Gedaro / Facebook

After reviewing the photos, National Deer Association director of conservation Matt Ross offers some overlapping insight into what’s causing the growths and fluid build-up. 

“It does look like it has the Bullwinkle condition. That’s a bacterial infection,” Ross says. “It’s an interesting, relatively new ailment that’s been found in deer in the last 10 to 15 years. It’s shown up more frequently lately, in about a dozen states. It doesn’t seem to be environment-related.”

The offending bacteria, Mannheimia granulomatis, has been the culprit in a variety of infections in different species. It causes a skin disease in cattle in Argentina, NDA chief communications officer Lindsay Thomas Jr. writes. The earliest reports of Bullwinkle deer began in 2002, and the condition gets its name from the moose-like appearance that some infected deer take on.

Deer with Bullwinkle condition aren’t automatically doomed. But the swollen jaw and nose could complicate a deer’s ability to eat properly, which is why deer with the condition tend to look scrawny and underfed. In the case of the Maine deer, Ross thinks it’s just a young buck that could be suffering from an additional type of infection. But the swelling isn’t what confuses Ross the most.

purple stained bullwinkle deer maine
Bullwinkle condition causes a deer's nose, mouth, and jaw to fill up with fluid, which might complicate the deer's attempts at feeding itself. Tony Gedaro / Facebook

“The weird thing about that deer is the color,” Ross says. “There are some birthmarks that infants will have, a few of which involve a dense collection of capillaries or blood vessels near the skin surface. One of them is a hemangioma, like a raised, super pink mark. Another one is port wine stain, which actually gets worse with age. So I don’t know if it’s related to a birthmark or if it’s related to the bacterial infection (causing the growths). My guess is that it’s a bunch of blood being collected or pulled up to the skin surface, and the deer is losing hair, so you’re seeing that skin color.” 

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Ross joins the majority of commenters on Facebook in admitting the harsh truth: This deer probably doesn’t have many years left in him, despite its young age.

“This is a pretty lean, long-legged, thin-necked, narrow-antlered deer. It is a stereotypical 1.5-year-old buck to me,” Ross says. “It looks like the deer is eating in some pictures, but it is obviously not in good shape. What’s going on with its nasal passage and jaw is probably making it very difficult for the deer to eat. Its immune system is compromised, so I don’t think this deer is going to live a long life.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Oct. 12, 2023 with new information regarding the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s decision to euthanize the deer.