Coveted as trophy, only 7 to 35 are estimated to live in Tennessee
Rick Frawley is an avid hunter who keeps an eye out for deer whether he has a gun in his hands or not.
He spots them frequently near his home in Nolensville.
But he usually doesn't see deer on his way to work because he drives before sunrise.
Last week was different.
The darkness didn't keep him from spotting a large buck in the distance off Wilson Pike. It was visible, Frawley said, because it "glowed."
It was an albino deer, an extremely rare animal. Several have been spotted in Middle Tennessee over the years.
"They stand out like a sore thumb," Frawley said. "I would have never seen the one I saw … if it had been a regular deer. It was at the crack of daylight and it was in the thicket and looked like it was glowing."
Their all-white color makes albino deer stand out in the woods and more prone to being caught by predators such as coyotes and bobcats. Their poor eyesight also makes them vulnerable. Hunters consider such an animal a unique trophy, but it is illegal in Tennessee to kill albino deer.
Residents in the Nolensville area have seen other albino deer over the past decade and reported them to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Photographers often spend hours in the area hoping for the opportunity to snap a shot of one.
Along with their snow-white pelts, albino deer have pink noses and eyes.
"Albinism is a genetic mutation that just does not occur very often," said Daryl Ratajczak, big-game coordinator for the TWRA. "It is extremely, extremely rare. Those animals generally aren't afforded the cryptic coloration others are typically afforded, and they tend not to live too long."
How rare are albino deer? The odds of one being born are estimated at 1 in 20,000, according to John Bates, a naturalist who co-authored the book "White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest." Some biologists claim only 1 in 100,000 deer is born albino.
The current deer herd in Tennessee is approximately 700,000, according to the TWRA. If albinism is as frequent as Bates estimates, it would mean there are about 35 albino deer in the state. If the more conservative estimates are correct, that number could be as few as seven.
Frawley said he knows of four albino deer currently in the Nolensville and Brentwood areas, and he believes there may be more than most biologists say there are.
"I've never seen one while I was hunting, but there is a buck that hangs around the river walk behind the YMCA in Brentwood, and then there are two others on Wilson Pike close to that same YMCA," Frawley said.
Ratajczak said more albino deer sightings are reported in Williamson than any other county in the state. There is no way to tell if the same albino deer is spotted by more than one person, he said.
One was seen often enough in Bedford County, however, that it gained a level of popularity.
An albino deer, known as Snowflake to many residents in Unionville, was found dead on a roadside in 2011. It apparently had been hit by an automobile.
A story, first published in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, about how the town mourned Snowflake's death made headlines across the country.
One resident had Snowflake's antlers mounted and placed on display.
Protected since 2001
In 2001 the Tennessee General Assembly voted to make it illegal to deliberately kill or possess albino deer. It is also illegal to harvest albino deer in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"I would say people would want to kill an albino because of the rarity," said Frawley, who teaches a hunter education class. "They would consider it a trophy because of that."
And now is the time of year when more hunters are taking to the woods. Deer gun hunting season in the state opened Nov. 23 and runs through Jan. 5.
"We need to get the word out because I'd hate for someone to shoot an albino thinking it was legal and then get themselves into trouble," Ratajczak said.
Killing an albino deer in the state is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by fine.
"I would say that your hardcore hunters are aware that it is illegal to hunt albinos," said Anthony Layhew, a deer hunter who lives in Rutherford County and has spotted albino deer there. "But there are a lot of people who don't know that. I wish it was more widely known because albinos are different. They're so unique, people like myself enjoy seeing them and there is no need to kill them."