The tiny Key deer is not much larger than a medium-sized dog. Once plentiful throughout the Lower Keys, the deer are now found primarily on Big Pine Key and adjacent No Name Key. Some deer also live on surrounding islands that have a good supply of fresh water. Only Big Pine and No Name keys can be reached by auto.
The Key deer population is quite small, estimated between 250 and 300 animals. It is not likely to grow much larger since the deer must share their refuge with considerable auto traffic, which kills over a hundred animals a year. Contributing to the deaths is the illegal practice of hand-feeding the deer, which lures the animals to the sides of the roads. Once the deer have become accustomed to traffic, there is a greater likelihood of collision with automobiles. The federal government is in the process of buying more land to expand the habitat, which consists of several kinds of tropical forest and a rare tree cactus hammock.
The first time you see a Key deer is memorable. They grow only 24 to 32 inches tall and weigh between 45 and 75 pounds they truly are tiny! A newborn fawn weighs only between two and four pounds, and its hoof is the size of your thumbnail.
The best time to see deer is early and late in the day along Key Deer Boulevard. The deer are most concentrated near the road's dead end. At night, the best place to spot the deer is on barely inhabited No Name Key.
Another possible photo spot at dawn and twilight is the Blue Hole, an old quarry that is the largest body of freshwater in the Keys. It not only attracts the deer but also birds, gators, and turtles. In addition, you can hike through nearby Watson's Hammock with its forest of gumbo limbo, guava, acacia, poison wood, and strangler fig.
The 8,000-acre refuge is located in the Lower Keys, 128 miles southwest of Miami and 30 miles northeast of Key West. The refuge office, located in a shopping center off Key Deer Boulevard, is open from 8 am to 5 pm. It has a good brochure describing Key deer habits. For complete information, contact the refuge office.
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