Sunday, April 04, 2004

The white deer of Romulus: should they be saved?

A few weeks ago, some white deer caught my attention in the pages of the Sunday Times. This unusual form of wildlife is inhabiting an old Army depot in Romulus, Seneca County, New York. The depot was closed down and abandoned in the early nineties and these animals are the center of a debate about what to do with the 10,000+ acres of land.

What are these animals? Mutant freaks caused by strange toxic waste? No, actually they are are a natural, although rare, strain of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Not albinos, the gene for a white coat of fur is recessive. These deer have lived within the protected confines of the fenced depot for some 60 years, and Army personnel regularly culled the herd in favor of the white offspring. What we have here is a classic example of selective breeding for a recessive trait.

Now that the depot is closed and the 24 mile-long fence has fallen into disrepair, the deer can get out, and predators can get in. Will the deer survive outside their protected haven? With all the rifles, coyote and what not, the evolutionary advantages of a white coat in these parts are few.

An effort is being made to restore the fence and turn the former depot into an ecotourism center, with the deer as the centerpiece. This sounds like a better use of the land than some others that come to mind, but given that the herd of some 200 to 300 white deer is the result of selective breeding and thus arguably not entirely natural, is it really appropriate for them to be the center of an ecotourism venture? On the other hand, what is natural, anyway? Just because humans have intentionally produced these deer, does that make them artificial?

Not that they aren't cute. What do you think? Should we save the white deer? Or let them face the struggle for existence unaided? Let the new poll begin.

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