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SAN DIEGO -- The life and death of Lucy the white deer is a strange tale with an even stranger ending.
Presidio Park in Mission Hills is a place of historic beauty, and secrets. Visitors walk verdant paths with the knowledge that centuries-old adobe structures lie feet below, packed with earth, untouched. One can almost imagine Father Junipero Serra in the first presidio.
Today, some local residents say if you’re driving westbound on the I-8 and you look over at the lush hillside, you may be able to glimpse the friendly ghost of Lucy the white deer.
“Well, there are some human bodies in the park, this is considered sacred ground. The first mission and the first presidio of what would become upper California was established here, early on in 1769,” explained San Diego Park Ranger Kim Duclo. "People who believe in hauntings [bring tours here]."
Indeed, the ranger tells us hundreds of bodies are buried in Presidio Park, and he showed us where. A stone’s throw away from the imposing white tower of the Serra Museum you’ll see an unassuming, low white wall. Beyond this wall are dozens upon dozens of unmarked graves, a mix of Native Americans, Spaniards and soldiers.
“Down in some of the areas below us in the park there are people who were buried, and that went on as late as 1860,” Duclo said. “But the next burial we’re sure of is Lucy, here in 1975.”
We spoke with Ranger Duclo about the persistent urban legend of Lucy, the white deer. Her final resting place is in a remote part of the park. Ranger Duclo took us to see the stone monument that still stands in her honor.
“Lucy was this beautiful white deer… It was always considered a lucky day when you’d see her, she was very elusive,” Duclo said.
Lucy’s story has grown murkier with age- found only in the memories of the residents who grew up around the park and in the yellowed, torn newspaper clippings from that time. The articles tell of a diminutive 75-pound white doe, born in the 1960s. She allegedly escaped from the San Diego Zoo and made her home in Mission Hills, becoming something of a neighborhood pet; grazing in the park and visiting the residents to enjoy salt licks and “salads” that the families would leave out for her.
The story goes that Lucy lived this way for more than a decade, but the residents grew increasingly concerned that the park was perilously close to Interstate 8. They worried that Lucy would eventually wander into heavy traffic and would be struck and killed by a car. And so, with only good intentions at heart, the residents sought to have Lucy moved to a more remote part of the county. They contacted the Humane Society, which, in turn, contacted the County Animal Regulation Department to come and move Lucy to a safer location.
It was the tranquilizer the county used to sedate her, not a speeding car, that ended up killing Lucy.
“[The residents] called to help save her and remove her from danger but unfortunately she was tranquilized and died of that process,” Duclo said. “It was one of those ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ situations. There was such an outpouring from the community.”
Archival photos from the funeral show residents openly weeping. One woman is captured clutching her poodle and a pot of flowers with heavy mascara streaming down her face. Approximately 200 people were in attendance as the doe was lowered into the earth in a 50-by-55-by-18-inch wooden box designed by one of the residents who often fed her.
In one local publication, an elderly bystander is described as looking upon the heaps of gladioli, zinnias, daisies, poinsettias, and chrysanthemums on the coffin and saying, “Lucy would have loved to have eaten that. She liked flower salads.” A pot of geraniums accidentally fell into the grave. A park gardener retrieved it but slipped, falling hard and denting the coffin lid. Both he and the flowers were quickly retrieved.
Lucy’s death also sparked intense anger and outrage. Duclo tells us there were several calls for the resignation of the county worker who fired the fatal tranquilizing dart.
“Some people were like, ‘Why did she even get tranquilized in the first place?’ Everyone wanted him removed from office. Thankfully I believe that didn’t happen. It was just a tragic accident, really,” said Duclo.
The ranger says something beautiful came from the tragedy of Lucy's death. A year later residents raised roughly $800 to erect a monument by San Diego artist Charles Faust, known in that era for serving the San Diego Zoo and holding the post of project designer of Safari Park.
Four decades later, you can still see the monument, if you can find it. There are three stones around a permanent watering hole and a two-line poem which reads: “Bliss in solitude beneath this tree, formless, silent spirit free. A friend.”
“There are people who, 40 years later, will still hike up to this point and pay their respects and homage to her,” Duclo said.
We called the San Diego Zoo to inquire into Lucy’s origins. Christina Simmons told us that the zoo had “a couple of white deer throughout its history, but all died at the San Diego Zoo. We have no idea where this deer comes from.”
This part of the story, at least, remains a mystery.