Genetic Freaks: Albino, Piebald Deer and the Debate About Killing Them

The author with his Texas piebald buck, which in some states might be protected by wildlife agencies or legislative laws similar to albino deer.

What would you do if you had the opportunity to shoot an albino or other off-color deer? Could you rise above the taboo and negative sigma that surrounds killing these rare animals?

Uniquely colored wildlife often make headlines across the nation, and in 2013, when three hunters visiting Nova Scotia, Canada, shot a rare trophy moose they created a huge uproar. You see, not only did it sport large antlers, it was stark white, or albino. The animal had been living in the region for years, and the local First Nations people never hunted it.

The visiting hunters’ elation over their success was short-lived when they sparked outrage on social media, and amongst the indigenous Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia, by killing a rare albino moose that was considered sacred. The hunters were not aware of the animal’s spiritual significance when they killed it.

White animals are considered sacred in many parts of North America and are not to be harmed in any way, shape or form, because some indigenous communities believe they could be ancestors coming back to remind them that something significant is going to happen. In some jurisdictions, there are laws to protect the animals, but in most locations they can be lawfully harvested by licensed hunters.

The Nova Scotia moose isn’t the only example of a white animal drawing attention. Kermode bears, also known as spirit bears, in British Columbia and Prince William’s Sound, Alaska, are considered sacred and are protected from hunting. However, the Kermode is not a true albino — the white fur on this color-phase of black bear is likely due to a recessive gene or because of a concentration of a lone gene in an area. The Spirit Bear is not an albino, but is still protected.

Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, has made headlines for years, where a herd of white deer has been increasing in number. The locals are extremely protective of these unique animals, and it is currently illegal to shoot any white deer in Wisconsin. The fact they are protected from hunting might be the main reason the population continues to increase.

After seeing so many cases of public concern over uniquely patterned wildlife, I was momentarily torn when I had an opportunity to harvest one legally. I had located a beautiful piebald white-tailed buck in Texas and must admit the white blotches of hair on this deer made it a real temptation. The deer reminded me of the old Far Side cartoon where two bucks are standing in the woods, and one has a big target on its chest. His buddy turns to him and says, “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.”

Albino deer are the result of genetic abnormalities and often have other physical problems beside the obvious white hair and pink eyes. It’s easy to get into a debate about whether they should be hunted or protected. (Photo: Getty Images)

I often think of that cartoon when I see a uniquely colored animal. Standing out in a crowd makes them conspicuous and more of a target than their buddies — the unique markings making them a prime candidate for harvest.

I was hunting the Texas Hill Country with Steven Ray, the creator of Rattling Forks, and we’d seen dozens of bucks, and had several close encounters during our rattling sequences. Checking a good area, we spotted one of the best sets of antlers of the week and were debating how to get to the deer without getting busted when it turned broadside exposing several white splotches across the its flank — a piebald! We had already decided the deer was a shooter, even though he had a broken point on one antler. I had never seen a piebald deer in the wild, and it made the hunt even more exciting.

We closed the distance to the buck and waited for a shot opportunity. When it finally turned, I squeezed the trigger and it took off through the mesquite and quickly disappeared. We waited close to 30 minutes before heading in, where we soon found the buck piled up in brush and cacti. The piebald hide was a bonus — I’d have shot the deer even if it had normal coloration.

WATCH: See An Albino Deer Grow to Maturity

Just How Rare Are
These Off-Colored Deer?

Biologists have long known of the recessive gene that causes albinism. It is not common, and the rate of albino deer born is a mere 1 in 20,000. In humans, about 1 in 17,000 will have some form of albinism. White animals are thought to have a lower survival rate, because the condition dramatically increases their odds of predation, and increases risk of disease, eye problems and cancer.

Not all white animals are albinos. A piebald — often referred to as calico — has spot patterns of large unpigmented, usually white, areas of hair, feathers or scales, and normally pigmented patches that are gener- ally black or brown. The color of the animal’s skin underneath its coat is also pigmented under the dark patches and has no pigment under the white patches.

An albino lacks any pigment that would create normal color in the skin, hair and even the eyes. A true albino has red or pink eyes, but many white animals have darker patches of hair and brown eyes, which simply means their hair color is a genetic trait and no different from what we see with people who have different hair colors.

The same goes for melanistic animals, which are solid black. Melanism is a development of the dark-colored pigment melanin in the skin or the animal’s appendages and is the opposite of albinism. The dark pigments usually make a melanistic animal black.

I shot a melanistic turkey that was solid black except for a single white-tipped feather. It was a cool bird, and it just happened to be the biggest gobbler in the group I was hunting. It is a unique trophy, but is still just a turkey. And it had white meat, which tasted the same as any the other turkey I’ve eaten.

Gavin Dingman of Michigan with his albino buck, which he shot in 2014. The resulting outcry on social media and in the news media is typical of today’s society: many were supportive and many were upset by his decision.

Should We Protect
These Genetic Freaks?

Where do we draw the line regarding what is special, spiritual or rare?

If we shouldn’t hunt animals with white patches of hair, when they are supposed to be brown, should we also restrict animals with non-typical antlers or horns, because they could hold sacred qualities or messages, too? Is a turkey with three beards a special creature? Is a piebald deer so special and unique that it shouldn’t be hunted?

Piebald deer don’t have the same genetic issues as true albinos but still may be protected by some state wildlife agencies or legislative action. Hunters sometimes don’t shoot piebald deer, either, for personal reasons while others don’t worry about it. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

An albino is hard to misidentify, but I could have easily shot that piebald buck without knowing it had the white blotches on its hide. I was focused on the head and antlers and could have easily missed the color patterns on the hide with the deer screened by vegetation. Domestic livestock with piebald hides, raised for meat, are butchered and sold just like the rest of the herd.

Different traits such as colored hair, skin, feathers or scales in any form of wildlife don’t make them otherwise different from the other members of their family. They taste the same, grow the same size and shape, and will only look different from the presence or lack or pigment, or a genetic trait that becomes dominant enough within a population that it shows up regularly.

Over the years, I’ve come across a few animals with different traits: a white porcupine with pink eyes that was a true albino, and white groundhogs and ground squirrels with dark eyes. I never considered shooting them, because I had no reason to. I’ve shot piebald and melanistic critters, and if, someday, an albino or a white animal shows itself where I’m hunting, and if I have a license and it’s legal to kill it — I will. Genetic traits in certain herds of animals make them look different from other members of their family. White deer can be produced through a strong genetic trait, but the deer is still a deer.

Others, such as the piebald I shot in Texas, have a unique hide with white and brown spots. Piebald animals might not be as rare as true albinos, but running into one is still an exceptional occurrence. Here in the Great White North, we see genetic traits develop in our deer in response to the severe winters they must endure. Bucks in Alberta and Saskatchewan can have huge bodies, which helps them survive when snow and cold challenge their existence. Deer in the Southern states are smaller to help them deal with the extreme heat. When comparing Northern and Southern deer, some might argue they are different subspecies of the white-tailed deer.

Sometimes the white hair is easily visible and hunters know without a doubt a deer is a piebald, while other deer may not have as much visible white hair. Either way, there is nothing to indicate that the meat from a piebald or albino deer is not edible. Should a hunter want to kill one and it is legal to do so, there are no reasons to not enjoy the venison. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

My point is, genetic traits, whether it is size or color, develop in animals and are propagated — and even more so if left unhunted. With both the Texas whitetail and the New Zealand turkey, the animals were butchered and prepared for the table. The unique colored hair and feathers made no difference at all in regard to how the muscle and meat looked, or for that matter, tasted. Once disrobed of their colorful coverings, the animals were the same as any others we harvested.

Does any rare or odd looking animal deserve protection? Do we want to propagate their existence and potentially increase their numbers? The white deer of Wisconsin number in the hundreds, but only because they are protected. If subjected to normal hunting seasons, the animals would be culled naturally, like any other deer in the woods. Because they stand out, their harvest rate might actually be higher than normal deer.

Do we want to develop genetic mutations on a regional basis? Laws to protect genetic freaks do just that. It is a tough question with the way social media works today. You could quickly be prosecuted by the public, who consider themselves judge and jury in many cases. Remember Cecil the lion? I think the only way the response to that whole story could’ve been worse is if the lion had also been white!

I’ve traveled the North and have seen many unique wildlife specimens in museums and wildlife collections. They were harvested, the meat was eaten, and the hides, horns, and antlers preserved for others to see. Being the devil’s advocate is rather easy, but anyone harvesting an albino in areas where it’s legal could be subject to public prosecution. Knowing what might happen, what would you do?

— Brad Fenson is an outdoor writer and an accomplished deer hunter from Canada.