White-Tailed Deer

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Lenten Devotion

March 31, 2023

Audio of this Lenten Devotion:

Deer in our backyard, Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

  My family and I moved to the North Shore of Long Island last spring. We quickly discovered that the clergy who lived in the house at 3 Oakfield before us were breaking the law. They had fallen in love with the abundant white-tailed deer that live in our St. James neighborhood. They fed them dried corn from long, plastic window boxes on the backyard deck. The Trustees warned me about what they had been doing—how it was illegal—and showed me a shrub chewed clean of leaves from the ground to 4 or 5 feet. Deer height.

    After we moved in, I found a large bag of dried corn in a coat closet by our front door. I threw it away. Later, when I was seized by love for the deer that wander our neighborhood and visit our yard, I wished I had kept some corn to share with them.

Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

     My name is Karen Crawford. I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Smithtown. I have been enthusiastically watching the wildlife in my neighborhood and especially my back yard since January, as part of a project in a Doctor of Ministry program with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The project has included some Sunday messages and Lenten devotions, inspired by thoughts and experiences with wildlife and people, Scripture, and readings.

      The deer truly are our neighbors. They live up to 10 years and spend all of their lives in about one square mile; some of them have been here longer than my neighbors and me! The deer like to forage for food on the edges of our backyard—where it is overgrown with wild plants and shrubs. No pretty flower beds here—no delicious day lilies, tulips or hostas and other expensive annuals or perennials that deer enjoy.  Just a tangle of vines that connects wild growing things from ground level to the top of trees, split by nature and age. I know the trees are a big draw for the wildlife that come here, including the deer.

Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

     I often see them, when I least expect them, standing in the backyard, looking at our house, probably waiting for someone to come out and bring them something to eat. They see me feeding suet and seed to the birds, and they hold onto hope. When I see them, I have to pause from what I am doing and watch them. I am drawn to their quiet beauty and grace. I forget the worries that I was carrying before I saw them. A feeling of peace settles on me.

Photo by Jim Crawford

     Seeing the deer reminds me of how we are meant to share our environment with other creatures God has created. That we are not alone and are called to live responsibly and gratefully, loving our neighbors—animals and human—and desiring no harm to any of them. It doesn’t make me angry that they are in my yard or walking down my street, leading us to drive slowly or even stop our cars so that may safely cross.

Photo by Jim Crawford, used with permission

    I know my feelings about the deer—my love for them, despite the challenges of sharing our suburban environment with them—are not shared by many of my neighbors. I was afraid to talk about the deer in my Lenten devotions, for this reason. I know people have strong feelings about them—and I understand their feelings and share some of their concerns.

     I have heard about the near extinction of native plants, such as the Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid, partly because of the deer’s eating habits.

Image From U.S. Forest Service:

We are losing the understory of our forests, and so we are losing habitats for other species. [1] I can’t help but think, though, how we have destroyed the deer’s habitats by building communities and roads where there used to be lush forests. White-tailed deer were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago and perhaps it is a miracle that they survived at all. Neighbors swap stories of collisions and near collisions with deer on the roads, and yes, it is dangerous driving. We have to be especially watchful of the deer crossing roads in Suffolk County, especially at dusk and dawn, when they are most active–and yes, there is also rush hour traffic.

    I, too, am worried about Lyme disease. It is spread by black-legged ticks that use the deer for unwilling hosts. Lyme disease is a terrible thing! But I am not ready to blame the deer for the ticks! If it weren’t the deer, the ticks would find other unwilling hosts. Maybe we should look for more ways to control the tick population that wouldn’t hurt our environment, as well.

       I believe the answer to our struggles with the deer population isn’t to cull more deer or to sterilize them or to find a way to move them somewhere else. This is their home. The deer haven’t been known to thrive when they are removed from their environment.

      I have faith that there must be a better way to co-exist more peacefully. The better way may involve changing our attitudes toward the deer and seeing them truly as our neighbors and Creation kin. The better way forward won’t involve treating them as domesticated animals. They are wild creatures and should be left to live as God intended! I don’t believe the answer is to feed them corn, no matter how I long to help them with their nourishment, as I do for the birds. A better way to co-exist may mean not reacting to their presence as if they are a nuisance and intrusion, but to think more creatively about making a natural space for them in our communities. A better way to live together would be to not see them as unwanted visitors, trespassers, as they graze by the side of the roads on green growth and on the edge of forests and our backyards, where they may find food and shelter.

      God’s people felt differently about deer in ancient times. They had a completely different attitude. Deer were needed for their meat and skin and admired for their beauty, grace, speed, agility, and resilience. Scripture can lead us to see the deer and ourselves more clearly.

      The Hebrew Bible is full of deer imagery. The psalmist cries out in his need for God in 42:1, “As a deer pant for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”  “God, the Lord, is my strength;” says Habakkuk 3:19 (ESV), “he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” The Lord answers Job’s questioning by pointing to the Creator still bringing forth life in 39:1. “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the does?” Jacob, in Genesis 49:21, blesses Naphtali, likening him to a “doe let loose that bears beautiful fawns.” The prophet Isaiah speaks of redemption in 35:6, when the mute will sing with joy and “the lame man leap like a deer.” Proverbs 5:18 encourages marital fidelity with, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe.” Deer are linked with romance and courtship in Song of Solomon (8:14) “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices.” And in 2:9, “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice.”

     My wonder for the deer increased when I learned about the white, white- tailed deer in New York state. About 200 of them live in Seneca County, in the Finger Lakes Region. Deer Haven Park, a refuge of 3,000 acres, opened in 2017 on land that formerly housed an Army munitions storage facility. [2]  I am hoping to take a drive there someday and see the deer, up close. I wonder if they will steal my heart, like the white-tailed deer in my neighborhood?

White deer at Deer Haven Park, https://deerhavenpark.org/

      The deer in Deer Haven Park are not albino; they are leucistic, lacking pigmentation needed for the hair follicle to produce brown fur.  The recessive gene that causes leucism is rare among deer, [3] but the fence that surrounded the base isolated and protected the white deer from the rest of the world and led to the leucistic population growth.

     The white, white-tailed deer reserve is, in a way, a story of redemption. The place that supplied the means of war for more than 50 years was begun by the abrupt displacing of 162 families from their homes with only a few days’ notice. It has become a place of grace and peace, life and beauty for God’s creatures. Family members of those who lost their homes when the munitions storage facility was built have returned to visit, walk the empty lots where homes once stood, crops were sowed and reaped, even sifting through what is left of personal belongings.

     But most of the visitors to the park, open only for limited bus or guided auto tours, come not to remember or imagine a painful past, but to see if they can catch a glimpse of the wildlife, now free to roam, mostly undisturbed. They come hoping to see the rare deer.

White Deer at Deer Haven Park, https://deerhavenpark.org/

      Science explains their white coloring, but not the way people feel when they see the white deer.  “They are mystical creatures, as mysterious as the munitions facility itself,” says Dee Calvasina, author of a column and a book about Deer Haven Park. [4] White deer are the stuff of myths and legends. The Celts believed they were messengers from the Otherworld. Native American stories predict that “when a pair of all-white deer is seen together, it is a sign that the indigenous peoples of the Dawnland will all come together and lead the world with their wisdom.” [5]

White Deer at Deer Haven Park at deerhaven.org.

The white deer live in family groups with brown deer, as if they see and know no difference.    

Deer Haven Park, https://deerhavenpark.org/

Looking out my window overlooking Oakfield, I daydream of the white, white-tailed deer coming to visit with their brown counterparts. In my dream, our eyes meet. In their gaze, they speak wordlessly.  “Want to come out and play?” they ask.

       “I’ll be right there,” I say.

Photo from https://deerhavenpark.org/

Let us pray. Holy God of Creation, during this season of Lent, we ask you to create in us clean hearts, and that you would put a new and right Spirit within us. We repent of our self-centered ways, our failure to love as you love. We thank you for the wonderful wildlife that live all around us as our neighbors. Help us, more and more, to see them as your creatures and our kin. Help us to find a more peaceful, loving way forward to coexist and even to be a blessing to our neighbors, animal and human alike. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.


Calvasina, Dee, Tiziano Thomas Dossena, and Dominic Anthony Campanile. Beyond the Fence:

       The Amazing World of Deer Haven Park. Idea Graphics LLC, 2022.

Clemente, T.J. “Deer, Deer, Everywhere.” Hampton.com on Aug. 20, 2022.

Hanberry, Brice B.; Hanberry, Phillip. “Regaining the History of Deer Populations and Densities

       in the Southeastern United States.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. Aug. 27, 2020; 44(3): 512-518.

Muller, Peter. “The White Deer of Seneca Army Depot.” Accessed January 5, 2023.

Private Life of Deer. “PBS Nature Videos.” Accessed January 5, 2023.


      [1] Taylor Beglane, “Deer Are Ravaging Long Island Forests.” Stony Brook Press, April 18, 2019 at https://sbpress.com/2019/04/deer-eating-and-diseasing/#:~:text=The%20story%20is%20similar%20all,of%20Environmental%20Conservation%20(NYSDEC).

    7 Dee Calvasina, Beyond the Fence: The Amazing World of Deer Haven Park, 7.

     [3] Peter Muller, “The White Deer of Seneca Army Depot.https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-white-deer-at-the-seneca-army-depot

     [4] Calvasina, Beyond the Fence: The Amazing World of Deer Haven Park, 6.

     [5] Peter Muller, “The White Deer of Seneca Army Depot.https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-white-deer-at-the-seneca-army-depot

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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