Wildlife: White deer attract park visitors

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Earlier this year, two white fawns stole the show at Grand Vue Park near Moundsville, W.Va. They were hard to miss and soon became favorites of park visitors. Park general manager Craig White told me people began driving through the park just to see the white deer. Photographers hoped for that special shot.

"Those deer are the park's rock stars," said one visitor.

This fall the twins began showing up near a parking lot most evenings near sunset. At other times they visited the bird feeders by the main office. They were indeed celebrities.

So I was concerned when I heard that three deer had recently been killed at the park. Though special hunts are sometimes used to reduce deer numbers near towns and parks when deer damage complaints escalate, hunting is prohibited at Grand Vue.

Like park visitors and neighbors, I was relieved when I learned that the white deer were safe. White told me that neighbors and regular visitors were upset; several volunteered to patrol the park at night.

The desire to protect these deer is understandable. Rare, seldom seen animals often trigger this reaction. Native Americans, for example, revered white bison. Snowy owls, white robins and white squirrels evoke similar feelings. So I wasn't surprised by the public's reaction to Grand Vue's white deer.

White animals result from genetic imperfections. In the case of deer, white individuals require recessive genes from both parents. So only two white deer can create an albino fawn.

Albinos are rare and lack the ability to manufacture dark pigments called melanins. Pure albinos are completely white, have pink eyes, pink ears and even a pink nose.

"They seem to be pure albinos," said Grand Vue operations director Rick Vargo, who has frequently photographed the deer, "but their eyes vary from pale to gray."

Leucistic individuals, sometimes called "piebald," are more common. Piebald individuals have white patches anywhere on the body. I get reports of piebald deer every year. One reason white deer are not more common is that being white destroys the ability to blend into the environment. White deer have a difficult time avoiding the sharp eyes of hungry coyotes. Only on snowy days do white deer have an advantage.

Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) or online at www.wvly.net. Or visit his website www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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