A majestic buck watches over a fawn no bigger than a house cat as the mother goes about her business.
“They are so gentle,” says Vivian Beck, president of the Key Deer Protection Alliance. “I love to watch their interactions with each other, how they coexist with the wild peacocks. I am a huge animal lover.”
Key deer—which grow to 2 feet tall at the shoulder and about 75 pounds—are small animals that wander freshwater marshes for food, search the beach berms of the Keys for mates, and hide in the shadows of mangroves around Big Pine Key and No Name Key.
Sometimes, they wander into yards, close to people.
“The first deer I ever met was Cutie, who still lives today,” Vivian says. “She is now the matriarch of our local herd.”
Vivian moved to Big Pine Key in 2013, unfamiliar with the deer. One day, she left her car trunk open as she hauled groceries into her house.
“Big mistake!” Vivian says. “As I came down my steps, I saw this deer standing on my bumper, rummaging through groceries with her front legs.”
She yelled for her to get out.
“She emerged from my car with a loaf of bread in her mouth, and off she went,” Vivian says.
Humans and the Key deer coexist, but the species has been on the verge of extinction.
Dr. Roel Lopez, director of Texas A&M’s Natural Resources Institute, says about half of Key deer deaths are due to vehicles.
Roel is one of the nation’s leading researchers on Key deer—the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer. The species is only found in the Florida Keys.
“We ask the public to follow established local ordinances and regulations,” says Ken Warren of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These include obeying local speed limits to prevent road mortality.”
Vivian was a part of Save Our Key Deer, and later became involved in the Key Deer Protection Alliance.
“I live in the heart of the National Key Deer Refuge,” Vivian says. “I first became involved in helping save them over a sick and dying buck. I could not get the help I sought. From that point on, I became an advocate.”
The deer need her dedication. By the 1950s, poaching and habitat loss reduced the number of Key deer to a few dozen.
Recovery has been steady, but dangers loom. Hurricanes can ravage their ecosystem. The New World Screwworm infestation of 2016 caused widespread mortality across the herd. The deer have received antiparasitic medicine, but screwworms still lurk.
Invasive plant species have crowded out some of the plants Key deer typically eat, such as thatch palm berries, pencil flowers and blackbead leaves.
Human food has made Key deer more comfortable around humans, so they encroach on residential areas and towns.
“Because of the unique marine environment they evolved in, they have adapted to survive hurricanes, having limited freshwater resources and consume high-protein plants like mangroves,” Roel says.
Unique and adaptable, Key deer might be extinct if not for Jack Watson. In 1957, Jack became the first manager of the National Key Deer Refuge.
The physically imposing game agent and former ambulance driver and funeral home director in Miami was hired to protect the deer.
He took the job seriously.
Once, Jack caught wind that poachers were on Little Pine Island. He found their boat, but not the poachers. He reportedly set the boat on fire and waited for their call for help, then apprehended them.
Another time, Jack drove to a poacher’s house. The man was repairing his roof. Words were exchanged. The poacher said he would kill another deer if he could. As a warning, Jack fired a shot. The poacher fell off the roof. He was unharmed, but Jack made his point.
Key deer have been hunted for as long as people have been in the Keys.
They were first mentioned in writings by Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda—a Spanish shipwreck survivor who lived among the Native Americans of Florida in the mid-1500s. Native tribes, sailors and settlers hunted the deer for food.
Hunting was banned in 1937, but poaching continued.
Jack watched over the refuge until his retirement in 1975. He died in 1983. A trail at the refuge is named in his honor.
“Jack Watson was one of a kind,” Vivian says. “No one can ever take his place. Me and my husband, and many others, share this torch.”
At the beginning of Jack’s career as head of the refuge, there were fewer than 50 Key deer. By his retirement, there were around 300. Today, due to conservation efforts and the animal’s listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, there are approximately 1,000.
The Key Deer Protection Alliance contributes to the species’ survival through a variety of programs, including education, advocacy, outreach, politicking and helping other organizations—such as sheriff departments and animal control services—to curb vehicle deaths. They also maintain a hotline to report sightings of injured deer.
Ken says there is hope for that small fawn being watched over by the buck.
“We believe the population will rebound,” he says.
“I am optimistic about the current health of the deer population,” he says. “It appears to be increasing and rebounding.”
Amidst that message of hope, Vivian offers a word of warning.
“They are possibly one storm, one disease and now one environmental disaster away from total extinction,” she says. “This must be unacceptable to us. As for me, I will do everything in my power as a human to protect these little creatures without a voice.”