Final fallow deer roams the Argonne site
by Donna Jones Pelkie
The end of an era is near.
One white fallow deer remains on the Argonne site, and when this doe is gone, she will take a little bit of Argonne history with her. Since the lab’s inception in 1946, the deer have been part and parcel of the Argonne property. Longtime employees know the lore.
Prior to 1946, part of the land that is now Argonne was the country estate of Gustav Freund, inventor of “skinless” casings for hot dogs. Freund had a small herd of the deer on his estate for several years. The naturally light-colored species – Dama dama – are native to North Africa, Europe and parts of Asia.
When the federal government purchased the property, it was believed all of the herd had either been given away to parks and zoos or destroyed by the local game warden. It turned out there still were two does on the property, and one gave birth to a buck. The herd created from these three deer became a fixture on the Argonne property and a topic of interest and conversation for employees and visitors alike.
Alicia Soto (PMA) has enjoyed watching the deer during her 35-plus years working on site. Her fondest memory is a day many years ago when she and her children were leaving the site about 6 p.m. after spending the day at the Argonne Pool. “The sun was setting and shining brightly on a doe and fawns that were sitting on both sides of her as they sat next to a tree on a slope. They were so unique and so beautiful. A lot of people will be so disappointed when they’re gone,” she said.
Nancy VanWermeskerken (PSE) also has fond memories of the deer. “I started at the lab in 1992. Back then, there were trailers behind 372, and that’s where I worked. There was a buck that came around regularly, so we started throwing food out to him. We kind of adopted him. He had a tag with a 9 on it, so that’s what we called him — Number 9,” she said. “One day I went out with pieces of apple and kept throwing them and getting closer and closer until he finally came and took it out of my hand.”
VanWermeskerken said that was the only time she hand fed one of the deer. Eventually, Number 9 stopped visiting the 372 area, and she never saw him again. Today, she occasionally sees the last doe. “It’s really sad there’s only one left.”
With only three deer to produce a herd, however, the animals were on a difficult path from the start. “It created a genetic bottleneck,” said Aaron D. Spencer, certified wildlife biologist and assistant district supervisor – Northern Illinois for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The fallow deer didn’t reproduce at a normal rate because of lack of genetic diversity, and even when they do reproduce, they only give birth to one fawn per year,” Spencer said. The fawns also are prey for coyotes, which have become prevalent on site in the last 20 years as they have throughout much of the Chicago area, he added.
Given the fallow deer have been such a visible part of Argonne’s environment, considerable thought was given to finding a way to preserve or replenish the herd as it began to dwindle, according to Mike Sodaro (FMS), associate division director, site services.
The main obstacle to doing so is the issue of ownership. “The regulatory climate makes this difficult,” Spencer said. Since the deer were already on the property when it was purchased by the federal government, they are considered wild and not owned by Argonne. However, according to state regulations, any new animals brought on site would be deemed livestock, and the laboratory would be responsible for their maintenance, including feeding and veterinary care.
According to Sodaro, new deer would need to be penned, or there would need to be a deer-proof fence installed around the entire site. Staff also would be required to continually monitor the deers’ whereabouts and their condition.
“In order to comply with regulations, it was determined the only way to bring more in would be to keep them penned in a zoo-type situation, and the lab decided this wasn’t the right thing to do for the deer,” Sodaro said.
The decision was made to let nature take its course. “This follows with the lab’s current thinking of keeping natural areas in balance with the native ecosystem,” Spencer said.
According to Spencer, the last deer is not formally tracked, but there are regular employee sightings and anecdotal reports. “She’s been hanging out lately in the southwest corner of the property. I can’t say for sure, but she probably doesn’t leave the site. If her home range provides food, water and shelter, she’s likely to stick to one area.” He added there’s no way to know how old the doe is, but the average lifespan of a white deer is 15 years.
Spencer said there was some discussion of capturing and moving the last deer. However, it was decided it would be too stressful to the animal and might even cause injury or death, especially if the doe is elderly.
So after more than 70 years, the tale of the white deer at Argonne will end quietly – with nature taking its course. One day she simply will disappear, having slipped away as all things eventually must.
Images by Nancy VanWermeskerken (ESQ), Sergio Martinez (DOE), Wes Agresta (CEP), Kurt Boerste (ASD), Joni Garcia (HEW) and Hakim Iddir (MSD).