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The mystique of the white deer
Larger view
A herd of white deer live at the old Seneca Army Depot in New York state -- the largest herd in the world at about 200 animals. (Photo courtesy of Seneca White Deer, Inc.)
Native American legend and practice holds that white animals, such as deer and buffalo, are sacred, and therefore should be protected. In the area around Mille Lacs in Minnesota, there have been reports of a few sightings of white deer. Joel Patenaude, the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger, had to see one to believe it.

Mille Lacs, Minn. — The skepticism I cling to is sometimes hard to explain. After all, I grew up in a household that encouraged imagination. My mom once painted a mural of a magical dragon across three walls of the playroom for my sister and me.

A smug penguin, with his flightless wings folded in front of him, stood in the coils of the dragon's tail. An accompanying poem, written by a neighbor lady, began, "I don't believe in dragons," said the penguin to the goat.

"And I don't believe in damsels and castles surrounded by a moat."

I was like that penguin until this past Sunday morning. It was then I removed the white deer of Isle from a list of creatures I'd believe in only when I'd see 'em. More than a year ago I inherited former editor Jim Baden's poster of the white deer, but I still suspected they were made up as some sort of marketing gimmick, like the jackalope out West or the Hodag of Rhinelander - the official mythical beast of Wisconsin. (Yes, lawmakers in my home state spent valuable taxpayers time debating and voting for such a thing. Go figure.)

I remained skeptical even when my better half said she saw a white deer within weeks of moving to the area. Since she hasn't caught a Mille Lacs walleye like I have, I assumed she was just trying to one-up me.

Then came the sight I beheld Sunday at the tail end of a chilly hike through Father Hennepin State Park. All my doubts were laid to rest. Not only do I believe in the white deer, I now whole-heartedly believe there are more and will be more out there, and they should be respected if not protected.

Four of us walked a loop through the park scaring up several deer as we went. Three deer, six or nine - it was hard to tell. We may have trod into the midst of a herd. This being opening weekend of white-tailed deer season, we knew how jealous every hunter would be over our good fortune. This being a state park and a refuge for such prey, the deer nevertheless kept an eye on us.

But it wasn't until we were driving out of the park that my first white deer appeared. As white, serene and graceful as can be, I couldn't have been more mesmerized if it had been an actual unicorn. And strutting behind her was all the proof I needed that there may be more white deer to come: a dark brown and authoritative eight-point buck kept pace with the snow doe. The majestic pair stopped to survey us for awhile before leisurely disappearing into the woods.

Earlier that day, a friend said his son, hunting south of Wahkon, had a large white buck locked in his rifle sight. Keeping a hunter's oath - informally held by many in the Mille Lacs area - he chose not to kill this wonder of nature.

I understand that white or albino deer are genetic accidents and there is no biological guarantee they will cease to exist if harvested. But as Wahkon resident Phil Tideman so ably wrote in a letter to this newspaper last May, the white deer "should be saved and treasured (as) a part of (the natural world) that has value way beyond any venison roast, hide or mount." I share his desire "that we agree to let these beautiful creatures live and thrive in the area."

In the poem from my youth, the reticent penguin told every creature he countered "I don't believe in dragons." To which came this reply: "Well, then I won't believe in penguins," said the dragon through his smoke.

The white deer will have to believe in us - and imagine we will do the right thing by them.

Joel Patenaude is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger.

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