Rare white deer struggle to survive in Virginia wild
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Held for centuries as magical, mystical and even sacred, white deer are simply genetic mutations often crippled by birth defects – from blind eyes to twisted spines and hunched backs – and have a slim chance of survival in the wild.
They are, however, beautiful.
“It was startling to see something so purely white in a background of dark brown and especially in the evening. It really stood out,” said Tommy Tracy II, who recently photographed a bright-white doe sitting in a field of green. “I’ve seen white does twice and it’s always around Cherry Avenue and Highland Avenue.”
Tracy, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, was driving down the street when the sight of the doe jumped out at him.
“I didn’t want to stop traffic so I parked my car and got my camera and went back toward it,” he said. “It was just lying down. Some other people were there so I had a few other humans around when I took the photos.”
Tracy said his neighborhood, where Johnson Village and Fry’s Spring meet, has a lot of deer walking about in herds, but he noticed the white deer always seem to be alone.
“They don’t seem to be part of any particular herd. It’s kind of a Rudolph situation, right down to the red nose,” he joked.
White deer have been spotted in and around Charlottesville, including along the John W. Warner Parkway, off Interstate 64 and at the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.
As beautiful as they are, white deer are the result of recessive genes and inbreeding among deer herds. A deer can be born all white through two primary genetic mutations, albinism and leucism.
According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, albino deer lack genetic color coding and have pink eyes and white hooves. Their color makes hiding difficult for fawns, and their eyesight varies from dismal to nigh onto blind.
Leucistic deer, also called piebald, have normal pigmented noses, hooves and eyes and can be everything from partly white to full-on white.
“The piebald condition is frequently associated with other harmful physical conditions, including skeletal deformities,” according to the game department’s website. Among those deformities are bowed noses, deformed legs, curved spines, stubby jaws and internal organ deformities.
“Piebald deer are rare, typically occurring at less than 1 percent of the population,” the game department website says. “Piebald deer can be more common on a local basis, especially in areas where deer hunters protect them.”
Animals with either genetic defect are not protected by state hunting regulations, nor does the game department recommend protection. Hunters are prohibited from shooting white deer in Illinois, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee and Wisconsin, however.
For several years, white deer have been seen munching ornamental frondescence in backyards and have become so popular among people that they are explicitly excluded from Charlottesville efforts to reduce the ruminating ungulate population.
“The public has consistently shown an interest in preserving the white deer, if at all possible,” Mike Murphy, assistant city manager, said of the recently implemented deer-culling program. “There was an instruction given to our selected wildlife management firm to avoid shooting white deer. The program has ended for this year and the instruction was honored.”
Most albino and piebald deer die before adulthood. Those that survive have found their way into human hearts and myths over the millennia.
Celts believed they were messengers from the otherworld. A white stag led to the conversion of both Saint Eustace and Saint Hubert. The royal symbol of England’s King Richard II featured a white stag wearing a gold crown and chain.
Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, the British military officer who founded the Scouting movement, called the white stag “the true spirit of Scouting, springing forward and upward, ever leading you onward to leap over difficulties.”
Jagermeister, a German alcoholic beverage designed to aid digestion and awkward social situations, features a well-racked piebald buck on its logo.
Although the deer are beautiful, wildlife experts say their recessive genetic traits and defects would prove detrimental to deer populations should they flourish.
“They are not a different or rare species, but they create an emotional attachment and human motivation that does not take into account what’s best for the deer population,” said Ed Clark, president and co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.
Clark said their whiteness is not a positive thing.
“They are an unusual sight because they either have multiple physical problems and die early or because of predation,” he said. “Protecting them would not be doing the deer population any good because it would pass the recessive genes into more herds.”
Regardless, the deer continue to inspire protection efforts from hunters, leaving motor vehicles and nature as their main predators.
“There aren’t many natural predators in the city, so it’s mostly humans running into them with cars that they have to watch out for. They’re so white and so stunning that you can see them from a distance, so I don’t think too many people hit them,” Tracy said.
“They really are beautiful and there is something startling about them,” he said. “They really attract your attention. Most things in nature don’t stand out like that.”