If anyone wanted to see a dead idea in search of a grave, all they had to do was read Question 35 at Wisconsin’s statewide fish and wildlife hearings in April. It asked if white or albino deer should be legal quarry for Wisconsin hunters. Currently, albinos (pink eyes and pure white from hoofs to ears), and “white” deer are protected statewide. What constitutes a “white” deer? By Wisconsin rule, a white-phase deer is protected even if it has one or more dark spots on its head, hoofs, nose, eyes or tarsal glands. But if it’s completely white except for even one dark hair patch on its neck or body, it’s fair game.
This large albino white-tailed buck was photographed in Wisconsin’s Buffalo County about 10 years ago. Photo courtesy of Tom Indrebo.
Personally, I can’t grasp why we make albinos sacred and untouchable. Further, it seems silly to protect white deer based on the location of dark fur, eye color and hoof markings. Besides, by granting protection based on beauty, we imply we should only hunt and eat ordinary or ugly animals. That not only sounds elitist, it’s beyond subjective. No matter. Even if objective, practical arguments had prevailed during the April hearings and the vote had been 99-1 to lift such protections, no lawmaker would have been foolish enough to write a bill to make it so.
This issue echoes the absurdity of Wisconsin’s 2005 spring hearings when the Wisconsin Conservation Congress – the state’s 360-citizen group that advises the Department of Natural Resources’ governing board – asked if we should let hunters shoot feral cats. Yes, stray cats probably kill too many songbirds, but no lawmaker wanted to be called a cat-murderer and get chased through the Capitol by litters of hissing, clawing cat-lovers. That’s why we never heard another word about feral cats after the 2005 hearings, despite a 57-43 vote favoring frontier justice for rogue felines.
One irony about such issues is that people agree these aren’t biological matters, but then they tout biological arguments to justify their views. For instance, those who favor ending albino protections often claim albinos can’t blend into the woods like normal deer, which leaves them susceptible to predators. Further, their pink eyes are sensitive to light, which can hinder vision. Meanwhile, opponents claim white deer in Northern winters are less susceptible to predation because they blend into snowy backgrounds, and note white deer usually have normal eyes. Hmm. Although neither party cites supporting research for those claims, both assumptions make sense. But so what? Albinism and leucism occur in less than 1 percent of deer, and recessive genes causing the conditions can be carried by normal deer. Therefore, shooting or sparing individual rarities has little or no impact on the herd, its genetics or the number of albino and white deer to come. If nature hasn’t increased or eliminated such genes in whitetails the past 3 to 4 million years, why would one state’s trivial laws from 1940 change things? Likewise, with traits so rare, why argue that protecting albinos and white deer could hasten the spread of chronic wasting disease – one of the main arguments to end the prohibition? Even if every pale-haired deer in diseased areas had CWD, they’d be the least of our problems, given increasingly scary disease rates in normal deer.
A mounted “white buck” on display at the 2014 Deer & Turkey Expo in Madison, Wis.
Albino/white-deer worshipers, meanwhile, think rarity and good looks are trumping arguments. Fine, but don’t pretend that’s science. Just admit it’s a personal opinion, and that beauty breeds affection and connection. If communities could put ribbons, scarves, ID tags and rhinestone collars on wild deer, and name them “Bucky,” “Plucky” and “Petunia,” they’d protect them just as personally and passionately.
Even so, it’s fair to note that albinism and white rarities inspire spiritual connections in some cultures. A white buffalo, for instance, holds deep meaning for the Lakota Sioux, and Fox tribes in Wisconsin had a White Buffalo Dance. More recently, thousands have visited a farm near Janesville, Wisconsin, where three white buffalo were born from 1994 to 2006. For other people white deer mean good luck, and for still others, a source of humor. Comedian Bob Newhart explored the subject on his “Newhart” show in the late 1980s. Newhart’s character, Dick Loudon, hit and killed “The Great White Buck” while driving home. The townies were furious, fretting that the buck’s death cursed their town. The rubes demanded Dick perform “The Rite of the Dancing Wood Nymph.” He thought it silly and shouted, “I’m not going to go prancing through the woods like a pixie.” But as bad luck beset the town, Dick relented. He donned a burlap costume and deer antlers, held a staff topped by a pine cone, and tip-toed in a circle while kicking up his hoofs.
An albino deer feeds near a barn in central Wisconsin.
Of course, when the town reviewed the ritual’s videotape, they spotted “Son of White Buck” in the background. Good fortune returned, but Dick’s humiliation remained. Question 35, of course, didn’t go anywhere during the hearings. Attendees rejected the idea, 3,939 to 1,915 (a 67-33 percentage), clearly showing hunters and nonhunters alike opposed the idea, even if some of us think otherwise. Still, it might have been fun had the idea passed. The antics that followed might have inspired some wood-nymph rites worth filming.