I tap the brakes. Crossing the road in front of my truck is a small deer about two feet tall. As it ambles into the mangroves of Big Pine Key, the big island about 30 miles from Key West, I tap the gas pedal and continue.
Then I brake again – this time for the tiniest deer I have ever seen. A few months old, it can’t be more than 15 inches high at the shoulders. Moments later, a buck – I’m guessing it might weigh 50 pounds -- trots out from the mangroves and disappears in the pines. Three Key deer in about 90 seconds is my new record.
They are the smallest race of deer in North America. During the last ice age, when Florida’s land mass was larger than now, normal-sized deer traipsed south as far as they could. The ice age ended, and the seas came up, and deer eventually ended up isolated on the string of islands we now call the Keys. Over thousands of years they made do by consuming stunted vegetation and mostly rainwater. Being smaller in an unforgiving habitat was an evolutionary advantage.
In the 1950s, Key Deer were almost beyond rare, an endangered species truly on the edge of extinction, their population down to two dozen animals.
“What was that?’’ my dad would ask as we drove a Big Pine backroad after dark on the way to the Old Wooden Bridge. “Was that a deer?”
Yes, it was. And seeing a Key deer, even a glimpse, was an occasion to celebrate.
In the early 20th century, unregulated hunting almost killed off the Key deer. But the automobile proved just as lethal. In 1938, the Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West passed through Key deer habitat. The little critters were no match for the internal combustion engine and shiny steel.
In 1957, the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the deer. The game warden was Jack Watson. In his previous life, Watson had been a hand-holding funeral director in Miami. But on Big Pine Key, he was known for his ferocious war on poachers and hot rodders. By the time he retired in 1975, the Key deer population had grown to more than 300.
Alas, there was a new enemy: Rookie Big Pine Key residents, including many who had come to regard the adorable little deer as personal pets. Some fed them Twinkies and hot dog buns, arguing that Key deer, which had survived on their own for thousands of years, would die without their help.
Deer that preferred back yards to the backwoods lost their fear of humans. Worse, they lost their fear of roads. Cars mowed them down.
Visitors who travel the Big Pine backroads – and even the main road, U.S. 1 – are likely to see a Key Deer these days. They graze outside of real estate offices and pizza restaurants. Visitors are also likely to see Kate Watts in her truck. She’s the lead biologist at the National Key Deer Refuge. When a deer is hit by a car, she sometimes picks it up, brings it back to the lab, performs the necropsy, sometimes finds a Twinkie in its stomach.
“Drive slower,’’ she tells people. Be on the alert, she tells them. Limit your interaction with Key Deer, she tells them. Yes, they’re cute, but don’t get out of your car to take a photograph. And, whatever, you do, don’t feed them.
Not long ago, Kate got a report of someone feeding Key deer in a neighborhood development.
She parked the truck, climbed the stairs and rang the doorbell. The homeowner answered and let her in. The deer was inside the house.
It’s against the law to feed Key Deer.
About 1,000 Key deer live now on the 5,000-acre island. About 100 are killed by cars every year.
Slow down. Eat the Twinkies yourself.
When you go…
National Key Deer Refuge
179 Key Deer Blvd.
Big Pine Key, Fla., 33043
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