White deer have been around for centuries, held by many cultures as sacred, protected spirit animals. Recently spotted and photographed around Charlottesville, these beautiful creatures are more beleaguered than they look.
Tommy Tracy II, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, stopped his car in Charlottesville recently to photograph a bright white deer sitting alone in a field. Tracy told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “It was startling to see something so purely white in a background of dark brown and especially in the evening. I’ve seen white deer twice, and it’s always around Cherry Avenue and Highland Avenue.”
Tracy also noted that the white deer always seem to be alone, never in a herd. This is most likely because, as beautiful as we think they are, their little brown deer buddies are shunning them for their differences. White deer are actually freaks of nature: the result of recessive genes and inbreeding among deer herds. A deer can be born all white either through albinism or leucism, both genetic mutations.
Albinism is a congenital condition defined by a lack of pigment, resulting in an all-white appearance and pink eyes. Many plant and animal species exhibit albinism, including humans, but albino animals tend not to survive long. They have poor eyesight and don’t camouflage, making them easy prey. (For instance, albino alligators survive in the wild less than 24 hours after hatching).
Albino deer are extremely rare. Most of the white deer people see in the wild have a condition commonly known as leucism, a recessive genetic trait found in about one percent of all white-tailed deer. Leucistic deer lack pigment over all or parts of their bodies — some contain white splotches, some are half-brown and half-white, and some appear nearly all white. Leucistic deer can survive longer than albino ones, but they still stick out like a sore thumb. This may be why they’re so lonely; the herd doesn’t want to be a target for predators.
Some people might go their whole life without ever seeing a white deer (I’ve made it to 43 without ever seeing one)! But white deer have been around long enough and are plentiful enough to appear in mythology and folklore spanning centuries.
In Celtic mythology, the white stag or hart represents the otherworldly. It often appears in Arthurian legend, evading capture and sending the knights on adventures against gods and fairies. It was also the heraldic symbol of England’s King Richard II.
In Christianity, the white stag was partly responsible for the conversion of the martyr Saint Eustace. Eustace saw a vision of the crucified Jesus between the stag’s antlers and was told that he would suffer for Christ.
In Native American folklore, the Ghost of the White Deer is a Chickasaw legend. There’s also a Lenape legend that predicts that when a pair of all-white deer is seen together, it is a sign that the indigenous peoples of the “Dawnland” will all come together and lead the world with their wisdom.
Genetic anomalies or not, people over the centuries and even still today are awe-inspired enough by white deer that they feel compelled to protect them. Charlottesville Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy told the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
“The public has consistently shown an interest in preserving the white deer, if at all possible. 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.”
To learn more about white deer sightings in Virginia and what you can do to protect them, click here.
Have you ever seen a white deer? Tell us about it in the comments!