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Seneca White Deer.
Ghost Deer have little to fear inside the former nuclear weapons depot.

Ghost Deer and Atom Bombs

Field review by the editors.

Romulus, New York

The world's largest known population of ghostly white deer live inside a Cold-War-era army depot, undisturbed since the late 1940s, sealed from the outside world by over 24 miles of barbed wire fence.

Seneca White Deer.
Welcome Center map. Visitor points to former grenade range.

The fence was not built to protect the deer, but to protect the atom bombs that were stored at the Seneca Army Depot. In the most secret part of the property -- the "Q" area -- the barbed wire fence was charged with 4,800 volts of electricity (An electric chair needs only 2,000 volts to fry a human brain).

Seneca Army Depot was home to the East Coast's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, sheltered in hundreds of blast-resistant earth-covered concrete "igloos."

Among the nukes were the A-bomb artillery shells for the Atomic Cannon.

The U.S. military removed the nuclear ordnance and left the Depot in 2000, locking the fence behind them. The deer survived, and in 2016 the land was sold to a local businessman. He decided to turn it into an attraction named Deer Haven Park. On November 16, 2017, the first of its tour buses entered the former Depot, one of several 90-minute tours per day.

Seneca White Deer.
Tour bus unloads human cargo at ammunition igloo.

Seneca White Deer.
Leafless wintertime makes deer spotting easier.

"This is the largest herd of white-tailed white deer in the world that we're aware of, and we've looked pretty extensively," said Dennis Money, president of Deer Haven Park. The animals are easy targets for predators and hunters in the wild -- "They stick out like a sore thumb," said Dennis -- and usually don't live long enough to breed more white deer. But inside the Depot's 32 square miles of woodlands, through the luck of having nukes for neighbors, the deer were protected, and thrived.

No one knows for sure how many of the ghostly animals live inside the Depot, but Deer Haven Park isn't taking any chances. According to Dennis they've already planted 100 acres of the property in deer-favorite food so the animals will have plenty to eat.

Despite the allure of the white deer, Deer Haven Park bus guides caution visitors that there's no guarantee that they will encounter one. "I tell people, 'This is real life, not a Disney movie,'" said Dennis. But the attraction keeps track of the best current locations for white deer spotting, and varies the tours accordingly. Winter, despite the presence of snow, is a surprisingly good time for seeing white deer through the leafless trees.

Seneca White Deer.
No nukes remain inside blast-proof munitions bunker.

Although the Q area is still off-limits, the tour buses do pull up to the fence (no longer electrified) and also stop at various bomb shelters, as well as an old cemetery trapped within the Depot, and an igloo that's been restored. "Those igloos were built to survive Armageddon," said Dennis, and their presence on the tour prompts what Dennis said was the most common question asked by visitors: "Were the white deer caused by the nuclear bombs?"

The answer is no, although the public seems to believe that the radiation bleached the deer. Dennis points out that the Depot's abundant populations of turkeys, beavers, coyotes, and eagles all coexisted with the nuclear warheads, and all retained their normal color.

Food zones and knowledgable guides improve the odds of seeing a white deer, but riding on the bus still requires some degree of luck, and we wondered if tourists might simply miss a deer if they were looking the wrong way. Dennis said that was unlikely.

"When the people see a white deer they start screaming," he said. "We tell them to use the military clock position system. 'Deer to the right! Three o'clock!'"

Ghost Deer and Atom Bombs

Deer Haven Park

5537 NY Route 96A, Romulus, NY
Deer Haven Park. From US Hwy 20, about a mile east of Geneva, turn south at the stoplight onto Hwy 96A. Drive south 9.5 miles. You'll see the Welcome Center on the left, on the far side of the fence. Turn left to enter the old Seneca Army Depot. Tours leave from the Welcome Center.
April-Oct., Th-Sa 9-dusk. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $35.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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