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Space Shuttle Columbia

Sick animals may have licked shuttle debris

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AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Three cows and two deer with swollen tongues, swollen heads and stiff necks are being tested to see if they were somehow sickened by debris from the space shuttle Columbia.

Carla Everett, spokeswoman for the Texas Animal Health Commission, said pieces of the shuttle were found in a property with the captive deer in Jacksonville, Texas.

"We want to learn if the animal might have licked it (the debris) or come into close contact with a chemical residue from the pieces," Everett said. "At last count there were more than 617 pieces of debris in Cherokee County."

The orbiter broke up on re-entry February 1, with much of the debris falling in eastern Texas and western Louisiana. All seven astronauts onboard were killed.

The cows were also on properties in Cherokee County. Only one of the them is still alive, Everett said. The other two had to be euthanized.

"But the deer are still alive and are recovering," she said, adding that all the animals were under a quarantine order not to be moved from their properties.

Results from blood and tissue tests should be back Wednesday or Thursday, Everett said. The tests, being analyzed at the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, should determine if the animals were suffering from disease or toxins.

A veterinarian from NASA is also participating in the investigation. Immediately after pieces of the shuttle rained down in the region, authorities warned people not to touch them due to the toxic materials and chemicals that might be on them.

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