The $180,000 Legal Battle…

The Michigan law that was supposed to protect albino whitetails from hunters for almost 20 years is in the process of being changed thanks to John Ingersoll from Indian River. That’s little consolation for Ingersoll, who is on the brink of bankruptcy and could lose his house over his three year battle to clear his name after shooting a mostly white deer during December of 2004 that fits the legal description of a piebald. He was accused of shooting an albino and using paint or shoe polish to discolor some of its hair, so it could be passed off as a piebald.

Piebalds are partially white whitetails that have always been legal for hunters to shoot in Michigan. One or more piebalds are normally taken by hunters in the state each year. They have more white than normal, but the amount of white hair they have on their body varies. The hair on piebalds is normally a mix of brown and white.

It was legal to shoot albino or all white deer in Michigan prior to 1990 and I reported on a number of hunters who did shoot albinos during those years. The harvest of a 5-point albino buck during the fall of 1988 in the western Upper Peninsula (U.P.) is what led to protection of white deer statewide two years later. Most people viewed the white deer that were taken as unique trophies, which they were.

The 5-pointer happened to be harvested in the district of the late state Senator Joseph Mack from Ironwood. He received some complaints from constituents about the deer being shot and acted on them. Mack pressured the state Natural Resources Commission (NRC), which had the authority to set such regulations at the time, into protecting deer that are totally white. The legislator introduced legislation that would have protected albinos if the commission didn’t do so.

Since Michigan law defines albinos as being all white, deer that have any brown on them qualify as piebalds. Ingersoll shot the mostly white deer that resulted in the controversy he found himself in on December 19, 2004 in Emmet County. That was the last day of the muzzleloader deer season. He was hunting from a blind with a .45 caliber Thompson/Center muzzleloader loaded with 150 grains of powder and a 185 grain saboted bullet. The rifle was mounted with a 3X-9X Leupold scope and sighted in at 200 yards.

John said he saw a number of does and then the white buck came into the hayfield where the does were from some pines and started chasing the does around. This was the first time he saw that particular deer as well as any whitetail with so much white on it. The experienced hunter looked the deer over carefully with binoculars. Besides having 8-point antlers, Ingersoll could see brown on top of the buck’s head and on the inside of each hind leg where the tarsal glands are located.

Since the buck was not totally white, he assumed it was a piebald and legal to shoot. The buck was 218 yards away when John shot the deer, making a clean kill. He was rightfully happy and excited about taking such a unique whitetail.

Several days later, Ingersoll brought the deer to the Department of Natural Resources office in Indian River to verify that it was indeed a legal animal. Employees from both wildlife and law enforcement divisions inspected the buck and agreed with John that it fit the legal description of a piebald. John posed with the deer for photos that appeared in a local newspaper and dropped the animal off with a taxidermist to have a full mount done.

After the deer was skinned, Ingersoll took the white buck’s head to the DNR office in Gaylord to have it aged and tested for TB.

Some Indian River residents had been feeding and photographing an albino buck for four years. When they saw the photo of John with the deer he shot, they assumed it was the same whitetail and they insisted the DNR investigate. They accused Ingersoll of coloring the deer’s hair brown.

So a conservation officer went to the taxidermist who had the hide of the deer Ingersoll shot and took some small samples of the hide with brown hair attached, to have them tested for any manmade coloring agent. When John found out about this, he got angry. He felt his permission or a warrant should have been obtained first.

It was his position that the samples were obtained illegally. Consequently, he took the hide from the taxidermist who had it because he felt the taxidermist should have consulted him before giving the officer permission. Since John felt he had all of the verification he needed that the white buck was a legal deer when he took it to the Indian River DNR office, he felt justified to react the way he did. His behavior in objecting to the taking of evidence, however, was interpreted as a sign of guilt by the investigating officers.

Examination of the samples taken from John’s deer confirmed that they had not been tampered with, verifying, once again, that the deer was legal under Michigan law. The buck Ingersoll shot was also aged at 2 1/2 years old, meaning it couldn’t be the albino that local people had been feeding for four years. And, in fact, the albino buck John was suspected of shooting was later seen alive.

But Ingersoll’s reputation had been tarnished. The people who had been feeding the albino buck wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, accusing him of shooting the deer. As a result, John said people stopped coming to his boat repair business. He and his family were also harassed in public because of the false accusation.

In an attempt to clear his name, John filed a civil suit against the people who he felt slandered him. He wanted DNR officers to admit in court that he shot a piebald whitetail and not an albino. That didn’t happen and the suit was dismissed. At least one DNR employee testified that the deer John shot was an albino, but it was still legal for him to shoot because of the spots of brown coloration.

The officer testified that there are some situations in which an albino whitetail can be legal to shoot and the buck Ingersoll shot represents one of those situations. The brown coloration on the buck’s head and hocks was staining caused by the glands in those locations. Whitetail bucks have forehead glands that are active during the rut and secretions from those glands stain the hair. Adult bucks also rub their heads on trees and brush that can result in additional staining. Hair on the hind legs is also stained from the tarsal glands.

The hair on the hind legs of adult albino does can become discolored from their tarsal glands, too, which makes the law protecting albinos in Michigan unenforceable. The law was a bad one to begin with because it was based on political pressure and emotion rather than science. It’s about time the law is eliminated.

John felt that some pigmentation of the white buck’s eyes helped verify it was a piebald, but that’s not true. Albinism is a mutation that results from the lack of color in skin and hair. Deer with this condition simply don’t produce melanin, which is responsible for normal pigment or coloration. Without color, the skin is pink and hair white.

Pink eyes are normally associated with true albinos, too, and many of them do have eyes that look pink, but that isn’t true in all cases. Most of the albino whitetails I’ve seen have had some coloration in the irises of their eyes such as a gray or light blue. Their pupils are pink, however, which isn’t often easy to tell unless viewed under direct sunlight, with a spotlight or a camera flash.

An article by Carl J. Witkop, Jr. about albinism in the October 1975 issue of Natural History Magazine mentions that some albinos have an enzyme called tyrosinase, which allows the formation of slight amounts of pigment, with the eyes being one location where this pigmentation appears. Most of the albino whitetails I’ve seen and photographed have been tyrosinase positive deer. Those with pink eyes are tyrosinase negative. Pink-eyed albinos are supposed to have poorer vision than those that have some pigmentation in their eyes.

The buck Ingersoll shot had a pink nose and hooves, which are typical of albinos, too. True piebald whitetails normally have black noses and hooves. There are exceptions though, like the piebald buck Michigan bowhunter Chad Bleeker arrowed on October 1, 2003. It had a pink nose and hooves, indicating it had some albino genetics. Some people refer to piebalds as partial albinos for that reason.

In a letter to John, DNR Director Rebecca Humphries summed up her analysis of the situation this way: “Your situation has helped reveal to the Department that the rules and regulations relating to albino deer need to be changed. I have asked our Wildlife Division to prepare an order for the Natural Resources Commission that would make the harvest of an albino deer legal in the State of Michigan. Truly, in cases whether it is initially difficult to determine whether a deer is legal or not is burdensome to the hunter. Moreover, there is no compelling scientific reason to protect these deer as albinism represents a mutation that is not desirable in a deer herd.

“You have obviously gone to great effort to resolve this matter, and I understand the time and resources you have committed to that resolution. The DNR has also committed a great deal of its time and resources to resolving this matter as well. This letter represents the final determination of the Department, and, from this point forward, we consider the matter closed. I thank you for bringing this matter to my attention.”

Another reason the protection for albino deer is being removed by the DNR is the regulation also protects escaped exotic deer that are all white in color. The change will allow hunters to shoot exotic deer that have escaped from enclosures to remove them from the population.

John has spent $180,000 in legal fees for depositions and an attorney to represent him in this matter. The late television show host Fred Trost was Ingersoll’s lawyer. Anyone who is grateful for John’s efforts and would like to help him out of the financial hole he’s in can send contributions to him at 7170 Tuscarora Circle, Indian River, MI 49749.