Oakland resident KB was taking a sunrise walk at Lake Merritt near the boathouse last week when she spotted something exciting: a mother raccoon and her four babies, three of which had strikingly pale fur.
“It brightened my day,” KB told us after sharing a video she took of the family of animals wading in shallow water.
Ghostly white raccoons have been spotted at Lake Merritt before, and while these types of creatures are often thought to be albino, they are in fact leucistic.
Albinism and leucism are frequently confused. One telltale sign between the two is in an animal’s eyes. An albino animal’s eyes lack pigment and appear to be pink or red, whereas a leucistic animal has pigment, giving them brown eyes. According to the National Park Service, albinism affects all melanin production, whereas leucism is the partial loss of pigmentation. “Leucism causes white coloration, white patches, spots, or splotches on the skin or fur. Leucism is also discernible from albinism because leucism does not affect the pigment cells in the eye.”
The raccoons that KB spotted have brown coloration in and around their eyes and fur, which indicates that they are most likely leucistic. While leucism does not hurt the animal, it might create some challenges for them because they can’t camouflage themselves.
Although leucism is an uncommon genetic condition, it does not lead to the animal itself being classified as endangered. Albinism and leucism are both genetic, but leucism is more common and its frequency varies among species.
Spotting white animals in nature has long been regarded as a special experience across cultures. Different animals hold unique meanings to various groups. Several cultures have folklore and superstitions around spotting a white deer, and warn hunters against killing them. Some Native American tribes have legends surrounding white bison. One well-known Lakota legend relates to a sacred white buffalo calf.
Encountering these distinctively colored raccoons at Lake Merritt is rare and has excited Oakland residents in the past. A social-media post from five years ago referred to one “albino” raccoon as “one of their favorite residents at Lake Merritt.” A Reddit post from 2021 also featured three white raccoon babies. The comments section is filled with people sharing and delighting over their own encounters with these special animals. In 2019, Oakland residents flocked to social media to share memorial posts after a well-known white raccoon was found dead near the lake. At the time, many people thought this was the last “albino” raccoon in the area. However, some recent posts, and now this video from KB, show this is not the case.
KB said that she didn’t know of these sightings before she spotted the raccoons. Regardless, seeing them out on her walk brought some unexpected joy.