Pisgah Penny, the pride of Brevard

Wildlife often provides us humans with some of our favorite mascots. There’s Smoky the Bear, Tony the Tiger, Bucky Beaver to name a few. But how about Pisgah Penny? Not only is this white squirrel the pride of Brevard but she is a real, live animal who thanks to innate powers can do what groundhogs do so famously.

Brevard is all about waterfalls and white squirrels

“Brevard is all about waterfalls and white squirrels,” says Ann Sharpsteen, founder of Brevard’s annual White Squirrel Day held on February 2 each year to coincide with Groundhog Day. On this widely celebrated holiday (at least in Brevard) Pisgah Penny will summon her superpowers to forecast the end of winter. But, upping her groundhog counterpart, this squirrel also knows something about sports. Her trick bag includes predicting the winner of next month’s Super Bowl.

“It’s a fun event,” says Sharpsteen, who founded White Squirrel Day a decade ago as a marketing tactic in the tourist-conscious mountain town. “But it’s also a way to educate people about wildlife and the importance of conservation.”

White Squirrels are rare

White squirrels are relatively rare compared to frequently seen gray squirrels that scamper through yards and upset our bird feeders. As the story goes, white squirrels originated here as part of a traveling carnival up from Florida sometime around 1950. Somehow, a pair escaped and ended up in the Transylvania County (the story gets murky here) where they were caught by a local resident who cared for the two as pets. But captivity apparently did not agree with the bushy-tailed animals and after one escaped, the other was let go. Soon they began breeding.

Squirrels are highly adaptable to urban environments and the ghostly colored animals thrived quickly becoming a curiosity especially among tourists. In 1986 the city adopted an ordinance deeming Brevard a sanctuary for all squirrels though most notably its prized white ones. It’s illegal to hunt or capture squirrels anywhere within city limits and, today, the white variety comprises almost a third of the town’s squirrel population. While Brevard claims white squirrels as their own, the creatures are now also seen in surrounding communities including Hendersonville, Etowah, and Mills River.

Variant of the Eastern gray squirrel

Contrary to popular thought, white squirrels are not albinos but rather a variant of the Eastern gray squirrel. Most commonly these animals have a mostly snowy white coat but dark eyes, a condition known as leucistic characterized by reduced pigmentation in animals caused by a recessive gene. Some, like Penny, have a distinctive head patch or even a Count Dracula-like widow’s peak. It is believed the variants spring up sporadically throughout the species’ range, then die out, only to emerge again.

White squirrels are studied and counted under the purview of the White Squirrel Institute founded in 1997 by a Brevard College biology professor who encouraged students to study the unique animals as a class project. The nonprofit works closely with the city to sponsor White Squirrel Day and, in the spring, the annual White Squirrel Festival that draws hundreds of locals and visitors to downtown Brevard.

Fundraising Events

These events support the institute’s fundraising efforts that provide financial assistance to licensed rehabilitators who rescue injured or orphaned wildlife and, when possible, release the animals back into the wild. Pisgah Penny, like her predecessor Pisgah Pete, is an ambassador animal—that is, a rehabbed animal that cannot survive on its own in the wild and now plays an important educational role.

Where can we find the white squirrels?

Katy Rosenberg, the institute’s director, is often asked by visitors to Brevard, “Where can we find the white squirrels?” She advises people to keep in mind that these are wild animals and, like all animals, Brevard’s white squirrels have regular patterns of behavior, but their whereabouts cannot be guaranteed.
There are several hot spots around town: the campus of Brevard College and in leafy areas such as Silvermont, and Franklin Parks. Driving or walking through the quieter residential areas of town is also a good bet for catching a glimpse of the playful critters.

Forecasting job

Chubby and feisty, Pisgah Penny has some big paws to fill since taking over the forecasting job two years ago. Her predecessor, Brevard’s long-standing official white squirrel prognosticator Pisgah Pete, was famous for taking on his groundhog counterpart, Punxsutawney Phil, and achieved accuracy rate exceeding 80 percent. After years of service Pete retired and was replaced in 2022 by his niece Penny, who is thought to have inherited the family’s prognostication skills. So far, though, she has only scored 63% in her predictions.
“It’s a learning curve,” says Rosenberg. “We expect big things from Penny.”

To learn more about white squirrels visit www.whitesquirrelinstitute.org. To support conservation efforts, donors can symbolically adopt one of these special animals. You can select a male or female and will receive a Certificate of Adoption and a photo of your squirrel.

Article by Paula Musto – a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge