Unique creature gained fawning following: Rare piebald deer was ‘quite a fixture’ along central Shawnee road
The first time Phil Smith saw the gray-and- white mottled face peering at him from a pasture near Johnson Drive and Lackman Road, he thought it belonged to a donkey.
But when Smith, a community service officer for the Shawnee Police Department, backed up and shined his spotlight through the dark, he realized the creature was something much more rare — a piebald deer.
Wildlife experts estimate the genetic abnormality, which results in deer with patches of white fur where it should be brown, affects less than 1 percent of all whitetail deer. Even some state wildlife experts have never seen a live one in Kansas, and Smith — an experienced hunter — only recognized the condition from articles and pictures.
That was about eight years ago. Smith would spot the unique deer many times in the years that followed, never far from the spot he first saw her.
So would others.
“Hey, did you see that funny looking deer?” new police officers asked after they’d patrolled Johnson Drive long enough to catch a glimpse of her.
Animal control calls came in from people who worried she was diseased, and some who thought they’d seen an antelope or a llama on the loose, Smith said.
Shawnee Police Sgt. Jim Baker, who leads Shawnee’s Traffic Safety Unit, said he’s had to shoo away drivers who stopped on the road to take pictures.
“She became quite a fixture along that little stretch of Johnson Drive for the better part of a decade,” Baker said.
Smith said no one that he knew of ever named the unique animal. “We just called her the piebald deer.”
Smith and Baker suspect street smarts helped her survive in Shawnee, where the automobile is the most threatening predator for adult deer.
“She actually looked both ways before she crossed the road,” Smith said. Baker said he, too, witnessed it more than once.
Living in the city probably helped protect her from hunters who would target the unique deer for a trophy, said Andy Friesen, Kansas City district wildlife biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
“If something like that comes by, or a hunter catches that out in the woods…that’s something that just doesn’t come up all the time,” Friesen said.
Friesen, whose office is in Shawnee, said he didn’t see the piebald but would have liked to. He’s never spotted one in the wild.
Lloyd Fox, the state’s big game program coordinator, said he’s only seen one piebald in Kansas. There have been a few other recorded cases, he said, but usually via photos sent in by hunters months or years after the animals died.
The gene that causes piebalds’ unique coloring — which can range from paint horse-like spots to nearly pure white — also causes varying degrees of other abnormalities including curvature of the spine, an atypical head shape and deformed jaw, Fox said. Shawnee’s deer appeared to have only slight deformities, if any, Fox said after viewing photos of the animal.
While the piebalds’ coloring may be beautiful to look at, Fox said, he doesn’t want more of them in the state’s herd because of their deformities.
“But I appreciate how people may be attracted to these,” Fox said. “If that results in those people becoming more concerned about wildlife health and habitat, then these few deer have served a good purpose.”
Smith was on duty July 27 when he was dispatched to check on a dead deer in a resident’s yard near Johnson Drive and Darnell Street.
The call was routine until Smith got close enough to see the deer’s markings.
“Sure enough,” he said, “it was her.”
Smith is quick to point out he’s no softie. Much of his job entails dealing with animals nobody (least of all him) likes.
But he admits it was sad to find the piebald deer — which he enjoyed watching and educating others about through the years — dead.
Smith said the deer had no outward signs of injury. He wonders whether age, the heat — temperatures reached 102 degrees that day — or maybe both got to her. Without examining the deer, Fox said it was impossible to rule out illness or even internal injuries from a collision with a car.
Regardless, the unique creature left an impression in Shawnee.
“This is a deer that’s lived her life right in your community, and it’s maybe a deer that didn’t have everything going for it but certainly was a unique animal,” Fox said. “It probably gave a lot of people a real thrill to see her.”
By Sara Shepard