Oconomowoc photojournalist John Hart was coming back from an assignment in Madison on Tuesday evening when he saw them again.
Two snow-white whitetail deer were grazing in a field along County Highway B south of Oconomowoc with a small herd of more typical brown deer.
Deer are a dime a dozen in Wisconsin, of course, but white ones are rare. The Oconomowoc deer are believed to be not albino but affected by leucism, a recessive genetic trait estimated to occur in perhaps 1% of deer that causes them to be entirely white or patchy brown and white (known as piebald). While leucistic deer may be entirely white, they lack the pink eyes, noses and hooves of albinos.
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He’d seen the white deer in the distance before, but this time, they were not far from the road – and close together. Hart, who’s been a staff photographer at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison since 2010, pulled over, fitted a telephoto lens to his camera and began shooting just as another car stopped to gawk. The deer skittered away, perhaps 100 yards further into the field before stopping. He captured a few so-so images from that distance, but after about five minutes – as daylight was fading – came what Hart called “the pretty miraculous part.”
“For some reason, the two white deer, apart from the others, started meandering back together toward the roadside near the spot where I originally spotted them,” he said.
They closed to perhaps 30 yards, and the veteran photojournalist could tell they were aware of his presence. “I’ll be honest, this is where the nerves set in,” Hart said. “It felt like a special shot, with the lighting and all, but I knew it could be easy to mess up with exposures and movement from either me or the deer.”
He balanced his camera on the frame of his car window frame as they emerged from some bushes and quickly captured about 20 quick images of the white deer in sharp contrast against a dark background and a fiery sunset. As a couple of other drivers stopped to take pictures of their own on their phones, he pulled out, confident he had a good frame.
“The next five minutes of my commute were spent just being grateful for, and somewhat astounded by the experience,” he said.
Oconomowoc nature photographer Naomi Steinruck has been documenting the group of leucistic white and piebald deer in the area for nearly 10 years. She sees at least one of them nearly every day and estimates their current ranks to be seven, ahead of the fawning season. Yes, they have names. Steinruck believes the pair of does Hart photographed are Lucy and Ethel, and there are also Rusty Latte, Caramel, Jumpin’ Jack, Marshmallow and Lukos, a magnificent buck who’s the oldest white deer she’s tracked. “He’s just so gorgeous when his antlers are full,” Steinruck said.
Aside from their striking imagery, white deer are imbued with symbolism in many Native American and other cultures, and Hart’s Facebook and Instagram posts of the photo blew up Wednesday. “The social media attention is kind of surprising, but there’s always an appetite for nature’s beauty,” Hart said. “I’m just glad I was able to find myself in the right place at the right time.”