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Rare beauty

White deer delight the photographers and hikers at Mill Creek Park

Robert Coggeshall poses in his Youngstown home with photos of Button, a white deer living in Mill Creek Park in Youngstown. Coggeshall is of a number of photographers who have captured the various white deer living in the park. (Staff photo / Kathryn Adams)

YOUNGSTOWN — Most Mahoning Valley residents have seen white-tailed deer roaming through parks or neighborhoods. The deer are so prevalent that some people barely take notice.

A few people, particularly in the Mill Creek Park area, might spot a white deer. It is a striking, beautiful and rare animal.

The odds of a white deer being born are about one in 20,000, according to John Bates, Wisconsin Northwoods naturalist and co-author of “White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest.” Others put the odds at closer to one in 30,000, according to the group Protect the Rare White Deer.

White deer are almost common by comparison in Mill Creek Park.

WHAT IS A WHITE DEER?

Matthew L. Miller, director of Science Communications for The Nature Conservancy, writes that “people have been captivated by white deer for centuries, and perhaps millennia. The ghost-like appearance of these animals has attracted myth, superstition and rampant scientific misinformation for an equally long period of time.”

Ronnie Lofaro, a foreman with Ka-Ron Waterproofing in Austintown, began what has become a part-time hobby 4 1/2 years ago when he began photographing white deer Youngstown’s in Mill Creek Park. He lives in Boardman, not far from the park, and decided one day to take a camera with him while walking his dog. He has been photographing white deer ever since.

Lofaro has encountered six white deer in the park, who all have names: Button, Angel, Bella, Angelo, Grace and Faith.

Button was hit by a car at 4 1/2 years of age; Bella died after giving birth due to a bacterial infection; and Angel died at less than one month old by a coyote or because of illness, Lofaro said.

All the remaining white deer are tame, he said. It’s easy to find Angelo, who can be seen near the hike and bike path off Tippecanoe Road across from the golf course.

“I’ve worked in dark, dusty basements for 25-plus years and and venturing outside in the sun / fresh air after work just became a pastime,” Lofaro said. “I enjoy the single life, so I have lots of time to myself to venture outside either to walk my dog, Kirby, or alone with just my camera and the deer.

“It’s the venture of going out and finding them and soon after, befriending them — never feed them. After a few visits, they remember you and become rather tame toward you. That’s how I get good shots,” he said.

“I’ve known a couple since birth and seen them grow up to be an adult,” Lofaro said. “Each deer gives off its own kinda vibe and a lot of times, they will see me walking up to them and just continue to go about their business like I’m not even there.”

WHY IS THE DEER WHITE?

Jamey Emmert, spokeswoman for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said, “White deer are a product of a recessive gene in both the mother’s and father’s DNA, which result in white offspring. This recessive genetic trait is found in about 1 percent of all white-tail deer.”

She also said that white deer are referred to as “albino,” which may be the case, although exceedingly rare. It is much more likely that the deer exhibits a condition commonly known as “leucism.”

Leucistic animals lack pigment over all or part of their bodies. Leucistic deer can be varying levels of white — some containing white splotches, some half brown and half white, and some appear nearly all white.

Mixed brown-and-white animals are known as “piebald” deer.

Robert Coggeshall, a retired vice president of Cortland and Andover Banks, has lived since 2005 on Old Furnace Road, where his backyard borders Mill Creek Park. He said he has viewed a variety of wildlife, including all kinds of deer. He feeds them cracked corn, sunflower seeds and provides a salt block, which helps strengthen their bones.

For two years, Coggeshall was a naturalist at the Ford Nature Center, where he provided nature programs as well as led hikes and kayak trips for visiting groups wanting to learn more about the wildlife in Mill Creek Park. One of his most popular presentations is a power point presentation called “Nature Outside My Door.”

His home is filled with dozens of framed photographs he has taken of Button and Bella, along with a calendar he created with a different picture of Bella every month.

It all started when a neighbor told him about a white deer he had seen in the park and Coggeshall went looking for it. He found and befriended Button — named because of his visible antler nubs — who learned to trust him and who he would pet and feed.

That started his fascination with white deer.

He also distinguishes between albino deer and leucistic or piebald deer. Coggeshall says that a true albino deer has pink eyes and will sometimes have birth defects. He saw a true albino deer 10 years ago in the park. It disappeared after three or four months, he said.

He said he has never seen a piebald deer in the park.

The most recent addition to the white deer population in Mill Creek Park was one born a few months ago while two were born last year and can be seen near the hike and bike trail, Coggeshall said.

Angelo can be seen any day by hikers and bike riders in Mill Creek Park. He doesn’t hide out and is well known by those who frequent the park, Coggeshall said.

WHAT ABOUT HUNTERS?

Today, human hunters are the most common large predator of deer, Emmert said. “folks send in photographs of white deer they have seen in woods, but don’t give out information about where the deer were spotted in order to protect them and keep them safe from harvesting,” she said.

Protecting the white deer also is a concern of Coggeshall. He said that two years ago two men in a pickup truck with rifles appeared in Mill Creek Park planning to shoot white deer. A neighbor found out about their intentions and called the police, who then escorted the men out of the park.

No hunting is allowed on park property.

Miller says that “one of the most persistent legends is that a hunter killing a white deer will experience a long run of bad luck, perhaps never bagging another deer. This idea seems almost universal among hunting cultures.

“When game regulations were enforced in the early 1900s, conservationists believed that rare wildlife needed to be protected. White deer qualified as rare, so many state game departments prohibited hunters from killing them,” Miller said. “This regulation remains in effect in at least three states and parts of two others.”

The most interesting example of white deer protection is Seneca Army Depot in New York, which was surrounded by a fence, essentially creating a 10,600-acre deer preserve. The isolation and protection of the herd allowed for high levels of inbreeding, which increased the percentage of white deer.

Many white deer protectors see a rarity that should be protected and that something so rare should never be killed by humans, Miller said.

What kind of white deer is it?

Albino — Born without pigment, resulting in an all-white appearance, with pink eyes and pink nose. Albino animals tend to have poor eyesight and standing out in all white makes them easy prey. A recessive genetic trait found in about 1 percent of all white-tail deer.

Leucistic — Pigment lacking over all or part of the body. Eyes and nose generally are normal colors. Still easy prey because of lack of natural camouflage colors. A recessive genetic trait found in about 1 percent of all white-tail deer.

Piebald — A mixture of brown and white patches caused by rare genetic mutations that often also cause skeletal deformities and internal abnormalities, including hunched backs and bowed legs.

Sources: Cool Green Science and National Deer Association

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