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The White Deer of the Finger Lakes Are in Trouble

There are around 200 ghostly deer living near Seneca Lake in central New York. Pretty soon, the herd’s days might be numbered.

Technically, they’re not albinos. Albino animals either lack melanin altogether or at least have an extreme deficiency. Since this substance produces color, albinism is characterized by a pale complexion and—often—strangely tinted eyes. Instead, these deer exhibit what’s known as leucism. This means that while they look mostly white, they still retain a noticeable amount of pigmentation. As such, the creature’s eyes are brownish—which is normal by species standards.

How’d all these oddball deer get up there to begin with? That’s a story of war, peace, and rampant inbreeding. In 1941, the U.S. government broke ground on the Seneca Ordnance Depot (now called the Seneca Army Depot). A useful munitions storage facility, this base later held America’s largest nuclear weapons stockpile during the Cold War.

With any military arsenal, security is always a top priority. 24 miles of fence were planted around the 10,000-acre plot. Just like that, dozens of white-tailed deer found themselves trapped inside—including some specimens with recessive leucistic genes.

Soon enough, reports of all-white deer surfaced. The first sighting came in 1949 when a leucistic buck and fawn were spotted on-site. Coyotes would ordinarily make short work of such conspicuous game animals, but the depot’s fence isolated the deer from this threat. With no predators in sight, the mutation spread.

As a population control measure, depot personnel launched an annual hunt during the late 1950s. When this tightly regulated season starts, no more than 40 hunters are permitted on the premises at any given time. Also, those fixing to bag a colorless buck or doe must win the right via lottery. 

Such efforts have helped keep the herbivores from stripping their land barren, and, by extension, maintain what’s now the world’s largest white deer herd.  

Next year, this unique claim to fame could evaporate. The depot officially closed in 1995, but a small U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crew has remained behind for cleanup purposes. Part of their job involves maintaining that fence, which is the only thing keeping Seneca’s snowy deer alive.

“These deer won’t last more than a season in the wild,” says activist Dennis Money. Apart from being vulnerable to predation, they are, as he notes, “prized as trophies.” A former utility executive, Money heads Seneca White Deer, Inc. Founded in 1993, the group is dedicated to both protecting the unusual beasts and promoting them as an eco-tourist attraction.

At present, the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency (SENIDA) owns most of the property. Once the military’s team finally pulls out sometime in 2016, SENIDA plans to start making big changes. For some, the developers can’t come soon enough. “We have one of the biggest [percentages] of tax-exempt land of any township in New York state,” argues David Kaiser, the town supervisor of Romulus, NY. “We already have a lot of wildlife...Montezuma, the national forest south of us, Sampson State Park, Seneca Lake Park. There's no shortage of land set aside for wildlife in the county.”

Businesses, residential areas, and farms will likely crop up over the terrain. Meanwhile, the huge fence isn’t long for this world—at least, not according to SENIDA Executive Director Bob Aronson. “We just don’t have the staff or resources to manage this as a park," he says. "It’s imminent that something has to happen soon, one way or the other. It’s time.”

What destiny awaits the region’s white white-tailed deer? The world will just have to wait and see. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages

Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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