The ghost deer: Fry’s Spring residents fawn over neighborhood visitor

Courtesy Virginia Rieley Courtesy Virginia Rieley

The Charlottesville neighborhood of Fry’s Spring has an unofficial mascot: a pale white deer that pops up in residents’ backyards, surprising and delighting them.

“I saw it out the window,” says Virginia Rieley. “I went outside to see if I could get a closer look. I was surprised when I went out it didn’t run away. It seemed really used to people. I just kinda hung out and inched closer and closer. It stared back at me for a long time.”

The white doe has been seen regularly in Fry’s Spring for at least two years. In 2015 she successfully reared a pair of fawns, both of which had normal coloration.

The animal is not part of a separate species of white deer—it is a whitetail deer like all other local deer, and its white coloration can be caused by any one of several abnormal genes. Some are albinos, which lack all pigment, typically develop serious problems with their eyes due to sun damage and are extremely rare. But the Fry’s Spring deer is probably not an albino. “The hooves are dark and everything,” says Rieley. “It didn’t have that kind of pink look.”

Deer can also be all or partially white if they are piebald, which results from a different genetic anomaly than the albino gene. Piebald deer may have a few splotches of white hair or be entirely white, but will always have dark eyes and hooves. According to Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the genetic mutation that results in piebald deer is frequently associated with other harmful physical conditions, including skeletal deformities, such as bowing of the nose, short or deformed legs and a curved spine, and internal organ deformities.

The Fry’s Spring deer outwardly appears to be healthy. To protect the genetic health of the overall population, scientists do not recommend special protections for white deer.

“I’ve seen her a total of three times,” says Andrew Sneathern, a local attorney. “Always in our backyard and always with other deer.” White deer are typically not ostracized by other deer and are able to socialize and mate normally. Depending on whether their mates also carry the white gene, their offspring can be either white or typical.

Other white deer are spotted sometimes around Albemarle County. A white fawn was frequently sighted in the vicinity of Blenheim Vineyards in 2015. Less than five miles from the Fry’s Spring doe, the Blenheim fawn may be a close relative. Several white deer have been taken in the last decade by hunters near Stony Point.

The white Fry’s Spring deer is probably safe from all risks except cars and malnutrition. While coyotes are local predators of deer, they only occasionally hunt within city limits, and humans are not allowed to do so within the city.

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