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'Whitey' keeps Bayfield County Residents Entertained'

January 1, 2004 - The Lake Superior Sounder



"You gotta love deer," says Paul Kneeland in his living room, showing me video he's taken of the ample wildlife just outside his kitchen window.

It's a meditative statement, spoken mostly to himself. He says nothing else, but as the tape rolls on, I heartily agree.

You have to love deer.

Of course, there are different ways to love them. They can be loved in a steak, or as jerky, or perhaps one's countenance mounted on the wall, a frozen-in-time reminder of not only a successful hunt, but the animal's majesty.

Paul, like myself, has loved deer in these ways in the past.

But his words this evening have a more spiritual bent, less to do with death, more to do with life. Indeed, there is something spiritual about deer in their natural habitat, fairly hypnotic: their careful, cautious nature, devotion to habit, the grace with which they move, both when they're creeping and (especially) when they're bounding.

Deer are fascinating to watch. Their relationship with humans - and each other - complex, and yet unchanging over millennia. Though there are some 1.5 million of them roaming the woods of Wisconsin, most north of Wausau, they are still a sight that gives pause, as if there were only ten of them left in the world.

Seeing an albino, or all-white, deer takes that lofty experience to the next  level.

For the last six years or so, an albino buck known commonly as 'Whitey' has called the area just south of the Bibon swamp region of Bayfield County home.

He was born near the Glen Iverson farm on Dybedal Road, spent his first summer there, then homed in on Paul Kneeland's house. Paul and wife Gerty have numerous photos of the young animal, who first appeared with a brown buddy they named Nuisance.

"Both of them were tame as pets," says Gerty. "That's where Nuisance got his name. He would come into our yard and stand there and wait to be fed."

Gerty's eyes light up when she talks about Whitey, something I've noticed in everyone I meet along Dybedal Road. In a way, Whitey is a pet to them all. Over the years, he's homed in on more than one property, all along this single stretch of country road, from the Kneelands, down to the home of Paul and Dorothy Anderson, to Daryl and Marie Christenson, to Bob and Marlys Walters - a distance of about two miles, as the crow flies.

This year, Whitey seems to like calling the Walters property home. Just before Christmas, Bob and Marlys invite me out to try getting a picture

It's a challenge. The deer generally don't come in to feed until close to dark, when it becomes near impossible to get a good shot from a suitable distance. After close to an hour, Whitey finally shows up at the Walters' feed pile, but by then it's completely dark.

Though a picture is out of the question, it's worth the wait nevertheless. I'll never forget the moment Whitey first bounded into the yellow cone of light above the feed pile. He is a hefty chunk of venison, easily 200 pounds, or close, with wide hindquarters and an elongated skull. This is especially amazing, considering his humble beginnings. Both the Walters and Kneelands show me video of Whitey from the fall of 2000, when he was a skinny little shaver easily mistaken for a goat.

Now, four years later, there's no doubt Whitey is big man on campus. Surrounded by several does and another brown buck (Nuisance, perhaps?), his companions make room. They wait their turn to eat, scurry when he tells them to scurry with a swipe of lowered antlers. Any jostling between Whitey and the other buck inevitably results in Brownie turning tail. Clearly, this albino has come a long way, and rules the roost.

Last winter, when deer feeding was prohibited by the Wisconsin DNR for fear of chronic wasting disease, Whitey was not as visible. Quite a shame too, because he was in his prime then. This year, though still dominant, his decline is evident. He has a scar along his flank, causing locals to wonder if he was hit by a car over the summer. Even more telling is the fact that he limps now. It's not immediately noticeable, but if you watch long enough it becomes apparent. According to Bob Walters, there are wolves and coyotes in the area, and that doesn't exactly boost his chances of survival.

"I'd be real surprised if we see him next year," Bob says, plaintively.

Everyone expresses surprise that Whitey has lasted as long as he has - a good six or seven years, depending on who you ask. His longevity has been attributed to relatively mild winters, ample feeding and conscientious hunters.

"I know plenty of people out in the woods who will stop everything when Whitey comes by," says Paul Anderson. "They just let him pass; appreciate him for what he is. Nobody wants to see him harvested."

The hunting of true albino deer is prohibited in Wisconsin. By all accounts, Whitey is a true albino. In late summer/early fall, a brown patch appears on his skull, which may fool those less observant. Bob Walters says the patch is the result of scraping, not actually brown fur. Hunters who see a mottled albino need to be sure that mottle is actually fur before they shoot.

Though albinism in deer is rare, it's more common than one might think, particularly in isolated gene pools. Several cases are spotted each year in Buffalo County, Wisconsin; there is reported to be one in northern Bayfield County, closer to Iron River, and one in Sawyer County, near Hayward.

There's some disagreement over the fate of Whitey. Bob Walters would like to see him harvesated by the DNR because of his age, mounted fully, and placed on display at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center. Others see things a bit differently.

"He's a magnificent animal," says Paul Anderson. "And I'm a hunter going way back. But I don't see any point to killing him for the sake of killing him. That'd be murder."

Says Gerty Kneeland, "He came into this world naturally, let him go out naturally."

Her words are compelling, and win me over ultimately. Yet I can't help thinking that Bob Walters' notion is sound. What a stunning display, what a great learning opportunity Whitey might provide, as long as his display is public and for the purpose of education.

For now however, there are no plans to do anything with or to Whitey, other than enjoy him as he continues to browse the Bibon woods, making his way from property to property, living out his life as his ancestors have for thousands of years in much the same way, and with any luck his progeny will continue to.

"He's been wonderful to have around," says Gerty.

"He's kept us entertained," smiles Bob Anderson.

Indeed, you gotta love deer.



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