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Urbanization and the Key Deer

April 28, 2011

Big Pine and its sister-island, No Name sit approximately 25 miles East of Key West along the Overseas Highway. It’s a sleepy little area without much to attract tourists – except this: some animals which inhabit Big Pine and its surrounding islands live no where else in the world! A couple of these are super-cute animals, such as the shy lower Keys marsh rabbit. But the charismatic stars of Big Pine are, of course, the miniature Key deer.

In Big Pine and No Name, the economy and desirability of its real estate is dependent upon healthy, visible Key deer populations and large tracts of undeveloped land. Big Pine is the larger, more urban of the two islands–No Name has only 43 homes which, as of 2011, are still working on getting a public electric and water supply and a sewage system. The wildlife of Big Pine/No Name is the sole reason people live on and visit these tiny islands, so the animals are protected by law from being hunted, harassed, or harmed.

Instead of sticking to their little wildlife preserve, the Key deer inhabit the whole of the islands, grazing in suburban-style backyards, slurping from birdbaths, and eating people’s plants (they dine on 160 species of plant, some ornamental. Determined gardeners coven their prize specimens in chicken wire lest they wind up a Key deer’s lunch.) There is something delightfully magical about watching miniature deer, like living lawn ornaments, trotting around these rural neighborhoods like gentle pet dogs. Some studies have suggested that the Key deer may actually benefit from a certain amount of urbanization.

A perfect example: during my last trip to No Name my husband and I observed a family of four does in a front yard. The deer were eagerly drinking clean, fresh water supplied by a human via a birdbath. As we watched, a woman hauled out a trashbin full of fresh cuttings from her overgrown treetops–healthy, green leaves and berries the deer would not have been able to reach on their own. As soon as she turned to head back inside, the deer trotted over to the bin and began to dine in earnest  Nowhere in the Keys is the balance between the needs of humans and the needs of wildlife more tenuous and interdependent than in Big Pine and No Name Key.

The Key deer have mostly lost their natural fear of humans. They come trotting up to cars, looking for handouts. Though it is illegal, people frequently feed the deer and pet them. On the one hand, friendly deer are a tourism-draw: even the most amateur of photographers can walk away from Big Pine with an up-close photograph of an adorable Key deer.  The above photo was taken by my mother, who is no wildlife photographer  (Ironically, my father is a wildlife photographer.) But feeding the deer lures them into dangerous situations where they get hit by cars, mauled by dogs, trapped by fences or canals, and made ill by the wrong foods.

* Reference: Impacts of Urbanization on Florida Key Deer Behavior and Population Dynamics, Patricia M. Harveson, Roel R. Lopeza, Bret A. Colliera and Nova J. Silvy, 2006


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