Little Deer, Big Gators

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Pint-sized Key Deer and huge gators make unlikely neighbors in south Florida. Try this tour of contrasts: the National Key Deer Refuge in the Florida Keys, followed by Shark Valley at Everglades National Park.

One Saturday, I felt the cool, wet nose of a Florida Key Deer in the palm of my hand. Despite scores of visits to the Keys over the years, I’ve never dropped by the National Key Deer Refuge. The encounter left me excited, exhilarated and totally in awe of these dainty creatures.

The next day, my hands and other extremities stayed well out the way of a 12-foot bull alligator at Everglades National Park. There would be no gentle nuzzling from this creature.

If you enjoy such stimulating contrasts, you’ll want to spend time amid the tiny, bounding Key Deer on Big Pine Key and, due northeast across Florida Bay a mere 50 miles or so, the huge gators slithering throughout Everglades National Park.

You’ll find gators throughout much of the peninsula, but nowhere else in the world is there a Key Deer Refuge—the species only exists in about a 30-mile span on 20 or so scattered islands between Marathon and Key West. My fiancé Kelly and I began our tour of contrasts there.

Deer Me: National Key Deer Refuge

The entrance to the National Key Deer Refuge is located off U.S. 1. To tour the refuge, you can trek one of several trails. The Blue Hole trail has visitor information and an observation deck. North of Blue Hole are two self-guided nature trails, one of them wheelchair accessible. You can also drive the public roads along the refuge as we did.

At first, we witnessed neither hide nor hair of a deer or anything else larger than a squirrel. I saw a fellow opening the trunk of his car in the driveway of a home in an adjoining housing development. “Hey, could you kindly tell us where we might see some Key Deer?” I asked.

“Yep, just slowly cruise around these neighborhoods and you’ll find ‘em grazing or resting. Just don’t feed ‘em anything because it makes ‘em sick.”

We provided assurance that we wouldn’t do that, and drove off. Less than five minutes later while puttering down a side street across from a forested area, Kelly’s sharp eye again homed in on something brownish – a deer crouched beneath a small tree.

Only 30 feet from us, we could see it to be a buck, its antlers partially hidden in the lower branches. The deer watched us cautiously but remained still. We snapped a few pics and moved on, figuring it best not to try and get closer.

Turning down the next lane, we slowly cruised the dead-end street until we reached a small field next to the last house. Four does meandered about, their heads to the ground as they nonchalantly munched grass. I stopped the car and we quietly got out, leaving the doors slightly ajar so as not to cause a startling sound.

The does examined us for a moment. Evidently satisfied we were friend and not foe, they went about feeding. At that moment, a figure suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision – a deer, crossing the road from behind us to join the others. She stopped as my green eyes locked with her soft brown eyes.

The doe, not more than 2 ½ feet high, continued to stare at me while standing less than a car-length away. For some reason I started sweet-talking to it.

“Ah, you’re so beautiful,” I said softly, as if on my first date. “You’re so pretty, such a nice deer.”

Kelly looked at me as though I had a giant wart in the middle of my forehead. Nonetheless, my verbalizations seemed to soothe and reassure the animal. I reached out a hand to her. Amazingly, the delicate creature ambivalently moved toward me, sniffing, looking at me alternately from both eyes, sizing me up.

I kept talking to her like one would to a kitten or puppy. In what seemed like inches at a time, the Key Deer crept closer until finally her wet, cool nose gently settled into my palm. Electrified and excited, I made no sudden movements in the fleeting hope that the deer and I would become good friends.

Silly me. Obviously disappointed in not finding anything to eat, the deer slowly and gracefully walked off.

At the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center on the way out, we discovered just how amazing our encounter was. Not only are the deer tiny – ranging from 24 to 32 inches high and about the size of a large dog, with females averaging about 65 pounds and bucks 85 – but this sub-species of the white-tailed deer is not found anywhere else in the world. The hooves of fawns at birth are about the size of a human’s thumbnail.

In the 1940s, Key Deer numbered less than 50. The establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge in 1957 acknowledged the need to preserve this endangered species. The current population is estimated at about 800 deer. Even so, the biggest cause of Key Deer mortality continues to be car collisions. And don’t give in to the temptation to feed Key Deer.

Cater to Gators: Everglades National Park

On the way home to Tampa, about 100 miles north of Big Pine Key we made a left turn off the Tamiami Trail connecting Miami to Naples into the National Park Service’s Shark Valley. Shark Valley represents one of three main entrances to Everglades National Park.

Our first reaction: We must be lost. We’d paid the $10 entrance fee to “Shark Valley,” but there were no sharks or valleys to be seen. A park ranger later addressed that seeming contradiction, stating that the park actually does lie in a “valley” of sorts (a few inches lower than surrounding areas), and sharks can be found (many miles distant in Shark River).

Nobody comes here wanting to see sharks anyway. The scaly alligator gets most of the spotlight. We took in the Bobcat Boardwalk near the Visitor Center, affording close-up views of a variety of plant and tree life. Also within about half a mile from the Visitor Center: the Otter Cave Trail, a shaded, limestone trail through a tropical hardwood hammock.

You can explore Shark Valley on bicycle (rentals available) or on your own two feet. No roller blades, scooters or similar devices are allowed. Note that the trail is 15 miles long and there are no shortcuts.

We opted for the narrated two-hour tram ride ($20 per adult). It slowly takes you along the East Road to the observation tower about eight miles distant, returning the seven miles of the loop on the West Road.

We found it well worth taking the tram. It stopped for viewing and picture-taking of egrets, herons and other bird life, as well as many alligators of all sizes literally just a few feet from the road. It’s no wonder that the tram sports chains across the open seat entrances to keep passengers safely aboard.

At one stop we viewed about a dozen baby gators in a shallow slough near a culvert. In another spot, the ranger pointed at the head of a huge beast, saying, “This is a friendly gator, actually – it never shows aggression. Even so, you wouldn’t want to get too close to it.”

Minutes later, the ranger asked the driver to stop just ahead so we could gawk at another big reptile. However, we were warned this one usually displayed a nasty disposition.  

“She’ll probably hiss at us,” said the ranger.

It did indeed, menacingly opening that toothy mouth and uttering a guttural sound that was no mistaking its dire warning: “You’d better move on.”

Once at the observation tower, we had about 20 minutes to amble up the spiral walkway and enjoy views of the sweeping Everglades in the distance and huge gators, turtles and otters playing in the pond directly below the tower.

On a previous visit here two years ago, Kelly and I had seen numerous gators lining the walkway from the tram to the tower. Moving by them as they lazily rested only a few feet away gave pause for concern. This time, big rocks lined the same walkway to provide a barrier – a pretty good idea in our view. Too cozy an encounter with wild gators might be exciting to some, but it doesn’t rank high on our wish-list.

As we rode back to the Visitor Center with a canal paralleling the road, black-feathered anhinga perched on tree limbs with wings spread to dry out. Also flying by were a variety of birds including more beautiful white herons and egrets.

A special treat: Four does – full-size whitetails – emerged from a strand of trees not far from the tram and walked through an expansive sawgrass prairie. “That’s not something we see on many tours,” the ranger noted.  

Indeed, ‘not seeing the usual and expected’ pretty much sums up how we felt about our contrasting two-day foray. Enjoying the delicate beauty of Key Deer on the one hand and then witnessing the menacing countenance of alligators really heightened our sense of nature’s variety. I think it’ll light your fire too.

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