Oh, deer! It's all white

Friday, January 2, 2009
A white deer was captured on film by a Lewisburg man and his family.

Mike Werner of Lewisburg was driving around Tuesday morning with his two daughters, Allison, 9, and Rachel, 4, and the digital camera he got for Christmas. They saw something on the far side of the football fields, across from Marshall Elementary School.

"I thought it was a pony at first," said Werner. "It seemed to be pretty tame," he added, noting that they walked halfway across the field toward the deer before the animals moved away. Werner has never seen a white deer in person before, though he remembers a newspaper picture of one when he was growing up in Illinois.

A white deer inside the city limits of Lewisburg is a unique and pleasing sight, but at the former Seneca Army Depot a whole herd of white deer can be observed.

The depot occupies 10,587 acres between Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake in Seneca County, New York, southeast of the city of Geneva in the Finger Lakes region. It was used as a munitions storage and disposal facility by the Army from 1941 until the 1990s, but was formally shut down on Sept. 30, 2000. The property has since been transferred to the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency, which leases it to Seneca County Economic Development Corp.

In 1941, 24 miles of 12-foot high fence was built around the depot's perimeter, isolating a small herd of whitetail deer. The first white fawn was noticed in 1956. By 1969 there were 220 white deer inside the Seneca Army Depot's fence. Today there are nearly 700 deer, about one-third of them white. Such a herd would not survive in the wild because the visibility of white deer makes them easy prey for both hunters and natural enemies like coyotes.

White-tailed deer (as well as other animals) have a recessive gene that causes leucism. Leucism is a condition that results in an absence of cells capable of making pigment. That condition turns their coats white instead of the usual brown color. They are not albinos. In albinism cells fail to produce melanin, whereas with leucism there is total cellular pigmentation failure. In nature, the recessive gene that causes leucism is rare among deer; and the chance of a fawn's receiving two leucistic genes, one from each parent, which would cause the condition to manifest, is even rarer. That is why, although white deer have been known to occur, such white deer have always engendered awe and have been the subject of legends. White deer have brown eyes, unlike albino deer that are pink-eyed. It is not uncommon to see brown does with white fawns or white does with brown fawns. The color combinations of white and brown deer range from gray to brown as well as white spotting along with pure white.

A not-for-profit corporation, Seneca White Deer, Inc., has been formed and is committed to the preservation, development, and display of the unique resources of the former Seneca Army Depot. The mission of SWD is to protect, conserve and educate the world on the life and habitat of the world's largest herd of white deer; the vital role played by the Seneca Army Depot in the winning of the Cold War; and the formation of a conservation park dedicated to protecting the herd of white deer as well as the other animals and birds which occupy a habitat of undisturbed wetlands, grasslands and forests.