Posted by: floridanature | September 24, 2008

Hunkered Down With the Mini Deer in the Piney Woods

I drive south on the “Overseas Highway” of the Keys, deep into a territory increasingly defined by the luminous turquoise sea, so electric blue today that it seems as if someone plugged it in.

At Big Pine Key, I turn off the main road at a brown sign reading “Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge”, heading towards the Gulf of Mexico.

On Key Deer Boulevard, I pass the obligatory shopping center —with its incongruous “Key Deer Realty” office—and then drive over an arrow-straight lane surrounded by Caribbean slash pine. Unlike parks, federal refuges are set up not to accommodate people, but animals. Although miles of firebreak roads anonymously snake their way through these woods, there are few interpretative trails for hikers. On an earlier visit, I stopped by the refuge headquarters, and in a small exhibit there, saw a road-kill Key deer fawn that had been taxidermied into eternity, curled forever in a diorama of a bed of grass and twigs. Its hoofs were the size of my thumbnail.

At roadside today, a sign with numbers that can be changed like a baseball scoreboard records the current vehicle mortality of Key deer this year: 67. The dilemma of the toy whitetails is they roam far beyond the protection of the refuge at certain times of the year—usually in the Fall rut season for young bucks, or in May and June for the foraging mothers and their new fawns. With traffic and asphalt hardly a blip on their genetic radar as a danger, they blunder onto roads, and despite the reduced speed limit here, they get clipped.

But there is more: Homeowners often feed them, ruining the deer’s solitary survival instincts and creating little semi-domestic herds. Grouping like this not only spreads disease and replaces a healthy diet with junk food, it makes the less-alert deer more vulnerable to attacks by dogs and the stray buffoon who maliciously harasses them.

Even as late as the early 1950’s, in a raw, sparsely-settled archipelago linked by rickety bridges, the deer was hunted for its meat. Locals so ravaged the native population that by the time the federal government stepped in there were only 25 Key deer left. (In fact, it was the near-termination of this animal that helped create the Endangered Species Act.) Jack Watson, a tough ex-poacher hired to be the warden for the early refuge in the 1960’s, was credited with helping reverse the trend.

A militant conservationist, Watson was known to track down Key deer hunters and forcibly arrest them. In one famous case, he went to the home of a particularly onerous poacher—one who vowed to continue until the deer were extinct—and finding the man working on his roof, promptly shot him off.

Today, local incarnations of the poachers are affluent Realtors who want the deer fenced in so the 14-square mile island can be properly “developed.” Some even insist that, once the herd rebounds, it can then be hunted and the venison served in local restaurants as an exotic delicacy. Like Jack Watson, the thought of it all makes me want to shoot the old farts right off their patios.

Our road deadends into the Gulf near the small refuge headquarters. I park in an empty lot here, and walk to the edge of the woods. Key deer prefer the habitat known as pine rocklands—tall slash pine with veins of oolitic limestone splayed into the thin layer of topsoil. These lower keys are geologically older than the upper ones, and the limestone here is vastly different, pale white and smooth, a contrast to the rough and porous texture of the fossilized coral terrain to the north. It is the kind of rock that holds fresh water in small pools, instead of letting it seep away, and biologists say that is the secret to the deer’s existence on these arid keys.

I look closely and see the neat piles of scat left by the deer, watch as a scorpion scuttles around them as if dodging giant boulders. Everything seems smallish, like the dime-sized blossoms of the sky blue Bahamian morning glories growing here in profusion.

Just as I look up, a small buck, a bonsai of a deer, casually walks out of the pines. Four other deer follow, one after the other, with a half-grown yearling picking up the rear. They seem tawnier and stockier than larger whitetails, and each has a distinct black cross or mask present between its eyes and across the brow. I watch in awe as they go about their business of munching wiregrass at the side of the road.

While the plants and trees of these islands are distinctly oceanic and tropical, the mammals are usually continental and temperate. These Key deer migrated down from the mainland during the last Ice Age as full-sized whitetails, back when the sea level was 400 feet lower than it is now and a land bridge extended all the way to the westerly Tortugas. Stranded here when the seas rose, the deer learned to live with less on islands, downsizing themselves into the miniatures we see today.

Although well studied for the last thirty years, there is still disagreement over whether the deer are a whitetail subspecies (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) or an entirely separate variety (Dama clavia). Whatever they are, humans have always been their nemesis: The first Europeans who landed on the southernmost island of Cayo Wueso—Key West—found the deer roaming there and promptly shot them for food.

Predators like panthers and wolves may have also been stranded on these islands with the deer. But, larger mammals need more room to roam. When islands are severed from their continents, big, wide-ranging critters don’t last long.

I watch some more and then walk back to my jeep and drive slowly away. It is late afternoon now, a particularly good time to spot the deer, and within minutes, I see another dozen. This group is well out of the pine rocklands, headed for the soft grass of a row of homes, perhaps in search of a handout.

I drive across a small bridge onto No Name Key, and park next to the ramshackle but cozy ‘No Name Pub’. Inside, shaggy eccentrics and tie-died bohemians chased north from Key West by the high price of gentrification, are busy filling their own niches. The bar’s motto: A Nice Place If You Can Find It. I straddle a stool under a ceiling covered end to end with thousands of dollar bills, autographed by earlier patrons. It feels good here in the cool dark, uncontrived and authentic, surrounded by folks who seem to be making their own last stand in this archipelago, keeping the outside world at bay.

Like the Key deer and the endemic tree snails, they too are riding the undertow of speciation as far as it will take them. Hunkered down back here in the piney woods, they are safely out of the pluck range, just like the tree snails that have learned to crawl up higher on the trunk to survive those who might collect them.

And just for now, that is more than enough.



  1. I just discovered and like your blog … I’m Florida blogger too … specializing in water … let me know if you have any water areas or issues of interest in your area … in the meanwhile, I’ll keep up with your posts. Take Care, Bob

  2. Thanks, Bob, am glad you enjoyed my Florida Nature blog. We’re both in the right state for exploring water, that’s for sure.

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