In the 1990s, I helped officials on Monhegan get a permit to eliminate deer from the island where residents suffered the highest proportion of Lyme disease in the state. And once the deer were gone, so too was Lyme disease.
This story appeared in the 2004 media guide, titled Why Maine Needs Hunters, produced by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. I was surprise to find, when I pulled the media guide out of an old folder a couple of weeks ago, that this story featured John Murdock.
When Linda and I started writing weekly travel columns for the Kennebec Journal and Morning sentinel in 2011, we began what has become annual visits to Monhegan in early May, to bird watch. And we always stay in an apartment at Shining Sails Bed and Breakfast, owned by John and Winnie Murdock, who are wonderful hosts.
Here’s the story about John’s case of Lyme Disease and Monhegan’s effort to rid the island of deer and Lyme.
John Murdock remembers clearly how the pain began, but he still wonders why it took so long to recognize. “I was at the point where I was going out lobstering and I was bandaging up my midsection,” he says. “It just felt like someone was ripping me apart.”
Murdock’s story has become all too familiar in the past decade or so. From 1990 through 2003, 918 Mainers and more than 180,000 people in the United States have been diagnosed with Lyme disease, which is transmitted by deer ticks. Many victims must suffer through confusing symptoms, debilitating effects, diagnoses that don’t seem quite right, and the anguish of not knowing why they’re so sick.
The most typical symptoms are rash, fever, malaise and a characteristic “bulls-eye” rash, says Dr. Kathleen Gensheimer, state epidemiologist.
But Murdock’s symptoms did not follow the usual pattern. A decade ago his ankle was unexpectedly sore one morning when he headed out to go ground fishing. He didn’t remember twisting it, yet it got more painful every day. He couldn’t even stand on it when he first got out of bed. One day while out fishing, he decided to go to the emergency room.
“They had to cut my boot off my foot it was so swollen,” Murdock says. “They had to drain fluid off of it. They bandaged it all up and sent me on my way. And the next day I went to see an orthopedic surgeon, to ask what’s going on. They took the temporary cast off it and the ankle was so black and blue and ugly that the orthopedic surgeon even went ‘Oh my God.’”
Long before Murdock and other Monhegan residents voted in 1998 to eliminate deer, the threat of Lyme disease hung over the island. The tick was first noticed in the 1980s and by 1996, 13 percent of the 75 year-round island residents had tested positive, according to a study by researchers at Maine Medical Center’s Lyme Disease Research Laboratory.
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife considers about 15 deer per square mile a good number for both deer and people. But Monhegan, 10 miles from the mainland and scarcely a square mile, had a deer population that topped 100.
Although he never saw a deer tick on his body, Murdock thinks he was bitten on his ankle. Ticks wait for hosts on the tips of grass and shrubs. When someone brushes against vegetation, the tick quickly crawls aboard and then moves to some out-of-the-way spot to feed, such as the groin, armpit or scalp.
“I remember picking one out of my youngest son when he was just a baby,” Murdock says. “He complained that his belly button hurt and we said, ‘Yeah, we’ll look at it later.’ We were giving him a bath and my wife looked and saw what she thought was dirt. Then she realized it was a tick.”
None of the doctors who treated Murdock suggested he might have Lyme disease. They thought he was suffering from gout, arthritis or chronic prostatitis. For about three years, his symptoms got worse. The arthritis in his hands and ankles was “really bad,” but the pain in his mid-section was even worse.
“I’ve heard other people now talk about having Lyme disease and say it feels like someone’s got a rope around their mid-section just tightening it and tightening it,” Murdock says. “It was very uncomfortable.”
With a wife and three children, he kept on working, but wondered if he’d have to give up fishing. Then one day in 1997, he happened to be on the island when researchers from the Lyme Disease Laboratory were testing residents.
“It should have been obvious, but when I finally got a positive test, I was surprised,” Murdock says. “But I was relieved to find out, instead of hearing it was a hazard of the occupation.” He started taking the right antibiotics and within a month he felt better. He still has arthritis in his wrists and ankles, “but nothing that a few Advil can’t take care of.” When the time came to vote on eliminating deer, Murdock had no doubts. Every other reasonable option had been tried, he says.
Until 1955, Monhegan had no deer, but at the islanders’ request the state brought in nine by ferry from Port Clyde. For a long time deer were a rate and welcome sight, but as the herd grew larger, food grew scarcer. Deer stripped vegetation, destroyed gardens and kept hardwoods from regenerating. As some residents fed them, deer grew tame and bold, walking down roads in broad daylight and going right up to people’s doors.
“They were swimming across Monhegan Harbor, going over to Manana to find food over there,” Murdock says. “That was in the last couple of years and that’s when you knew you had too many deer.”
As fear of Lyme disease grew, the islanders tried in 1993 to eradicate rats, which harbor deer ticks in the early stages of their life cycle. But most rats wouldn’t eat the poison and a dog almost died from eating a poisoned rat. In 1994, islanders voted to rid the island of deer, but waited two years while researchers fed them corn mixed with an insecticide called Ivermectin. That didn’t work either. But the extra food and the fact that deer couldn’t be hunted because of the presence of Ivermectin in the deer meat helped the population grow even larger, Murdock says.
In December 1996, islanders voted to dramatically reduce the herd. A sharpshooter killed 72 that winter and 35 more the following winter. In March 1998, islanders voted 31 to 23 to remove the rest. The last six deer were shot in January and March 1999.
“I felt very strongly about getting rid of them,” Murdock says. “Enough that I basically said if we don’t vote to get rid of them and one of my kids gets Lyme disease I’ll go shoot them all myself. I was very strongly worried that my kids of someone else’s kids would get it.”
The number of deer ticks found by researchers did not immediately go down – in fact, it went up because the deer were gone and more adult ticks were searching for hosts. In fall 1999, more adult ticks were found than in any of the previous nine years. Then the numbers began to drop. Adult ticks became increasingly rare. By 2003, no larval ticks were found and no nymphs were found in either 2002 or 2003.
“I think what we clearly showed on Monhegan was that with a total lack of deer and other adult tick-stage hosts – because people and large animals can also host adult deer ticks – we saw the tick population crash several years later, “says Mary Holman, a researcher with the Lyme Disease Laboratory.
The risk of encountering an infected deer tick on Monhegan has dramatically decreased, although it will never disappear. “I have not heard of any (Lyme) cases this year,” Holman says. “But it’s certainly not totally out of the question there or in most places in Maine, because immature ticks can arrive via birds.”
So Murdock still advises people to use repellent, wear white socks and check themselves for ticks often. He’s given up ground fishing, though he still goes out for lobster. He and his wife run a bed and breakfast, Shining Sails, where he fields a lot of questions from visitors about Lyme disease and ticks.
He and other islanders sometimes miss seeing deer, Murdock says,” but they’ve enjoyed seeing the island’s vegetation rebound. Some species of flowers that were thought gone forever have come back. But the hard feelings among islanders over the removal of the deer seem to be gone, he says.
“I think there were a lot of people upset about getting rid of the deer at the time, but I think in a matter of a year or so it passed…,” Murdock says. “I’m glad they did what they did.”