Albino deer like this one, photographed near Seneca Falls, N.Y., are protected by an Illinois law enacted in the early 1980s that prohibits hunters from shooting all-white deer.
All-white whitetails notable
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was published Sept. 17, 2006 in the Peoria Journal Star.
There was a time in the Midwest when merely seeing a deer halted traffic.
As anyone who spends time outside can tell you, that’s no longer the case. Deer are now so abundant it’s hard not to take them for granted. But there’s still one whitetail that stops people and vehicles: an albino. Across the country, the sighting of an albino or even a partially white deer still generates conversation and, in some cases, controversy.
That’s true because finding an albino in the wild is very rare. A Wisconsin study estimated albinos occurred once in every 42,500 births.
In Illinois the best place to see white deer - aside from a display case at Spring Lake Park’s Lakeview Nature Center near Macomb - is at Sangchris Lake. Years ago, while living in Decatur and occasionally fishing that cooling lake southeast of Springfield, I saw several albino deer - including one doe that swam across the lake in front of our boat.
Others have similar stories about Sangchris today.
“My life (Lisa) just loves them to death because they are so neat to see,” said Tim Guinan, a Springfield-area bowhunter who frequently sees albinos at Sangchris. “And I’ve taken friends out (to the inner peninsula at Sangchris) to see them, and they are just mesmerized by them.”
But Sangchris site manager Steve Carey, who has a picture of a big 8-point albino in his office, said increased hunting pressure at the park has dispersed white deer more than 10 years ago.
“I know there’s still one in the middle peninsula, but we’re hearing more reports of white deer in the surrounding area,” Carey said. “In the past you could almost set your clock by the time the white deer would come out. We’d have people come out and park by the highway to wait for them on a regular basis.”
The same thing happens in my old stomping grounds of upstate New York, where a sizable albino herd thrives behind the high fence of a former missile depot near Seneca Falls, N.Y. It’s almost impossible to drive past the depot without seeing white deer - or drivers stopped by the side of the road to gawk. Albino deer commonly travel in the company of whitetails with normal colors, as in the case of this trio pictured at right at Seneca Falls, N.Y.
This is nothing new, of course. Albinos have been revered since the days of native Americans, who assigned wisdom and spiritual powers to white animals and feared dire consequences for killing them.
White deer are also protected in Illinois. According to retired deer biologist John Kube, impetus to prohibit hunting white deer came in the early 1980s from a persuasive archer who frequented Sangchris.
“This guy thought albinos were the coolest thing in the world, and he got hold of Gov. Thompson at the State Fair,” Kube recalled. “He told (Thompson) the albino deer should be protected because they were such a neat little animal. Lo and behold, it came to pass the state wrote an ad rule that forbid the taking of all-white whitetail deer.”
The rule stands today, as do similar regulations in Wisconsin and Iowa. In Illinois, killing an all-white deer is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and $2,500 in fines. Any white deer will also be confiscated, as in the case of the buck at Lakeview Nature Center near Macomb.
Biologists don’t tend to favor the rule.
“From a management standpoint you’d prefer not to give an edge to an oddball of the species,” state deer biologist Paul Shelton said, “particularly when then they are considered genetically inferior.”
Try telling that to residents of Pittsfield, who were angered last November when some Pennsylvania hunters shot a young albino buck with a rifle. Residents had become very attached to the white deer and were furious about the shooting, which resulted in tickets and fines for the out-of-staters.
Even those who shoot part-white deer risk ridicule, as Decatur hunter Gary King learned in 2000 when he killed an 11-point buck that had a small brown patch on its head. While that made the buck fair game, King said he received numerous obscene calls and was told repeatedly he should not have shot.
No question, people love their white deer.