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Original Issue

A phantom proves real

Once so rare that some people doubted its existence, the tiny key deer is now reported on the increase in the thickets of its Florida isles

On the lower Florida Keys, in a strange habitat of subtropic islands, lives the remnant of a race of tiny deer. Isolated from the mainland, these toy animals, about the size of large setter dogs and called the key deer, have long carried on an elusive existence, hiding like phantoms in jungly thickets by day and seldom emerging into the open marl flats except at night. Hunted with dogs in years past or driven onto the flats by set fires, the little animals dwindled in numbers and became so wary that few persons saw them. Many people searched for days without catching sight of one. Some skeptics even doubted their existence and joked about the deer that nobody could find. But the fact that a few were still around was proved once in a rare while when a very small deer would be killed by a car on the Overseas Highway.

Even Jack Watson, a big man with a soft voice, who as U.S. Fish and Wildlife warden in the area has guarded the little deer since 1950, has had only occasional glimpses of his charges. It took him weeks of studying tracks, droppings and range to estimate their numbers. When Watson took over the job of riding herd on these phantoms of the thickets there were less than 50 of them left.

Since 1954, when Congress established the Key Deer Refuge, Watson has patrolled an area of 6,730 acres. Most of this is private land under lease for sanctuary purposes, but almost 1,000 acres on Howe Key is owned outright by the Government. Much of the money to purchase sanctuary land has been supplied by the North American Wildlife Foundation.

Last week Watson came up with a report that will cause jubilation among all those who have worked to save the key deer. After a diligent survey he estimated that they now number approximately 225 individuals. He announced, further, that the deer not only have increased in numbers but have spread into new territory, or back into old territory. At their low point their range consisted only of Big Pine Key and four or five others, but Watson has established that they are now found on 18 different keys.

Lucky trip on Big Pine Key

Although scientists describe the key deer as a small subspecies of the Virginia whitetail deer, some scoffers have held that it is nothing to get excited about, that it is the same as the common white-tail, perhaps a little smaller. But on a trip through Big Pine Key with Watson I was fortunate enough to get a good look at one of these toy creatures, and what I saw was a four-point buck that could not have been more than 27 inches high at the shoulder.

It was a 1,000-to-1 shot, a stroke of luck that few members of the private and governmental organizations that have fought so hard to preserve the key deer have ever enjoyed. We had spent the entire day penetrating the jungles of Big Pine Key, and by late afternoon we were out on the marl flats in the southwest section of the island. We were standing there talking when suddenly something brownish and about the size of a large dog moved in the dense buttonwood thicket across the flat.

"Sssssh!" Watson warned, grabbing my arm. His warning was unnecessary, for I had already glimpsed a miniature head with upright antlers, each bearing two points. We stood like statues while the deer came toward us. The situation was perfect. We were downwind and the sun was behind us. The buck continued, stopping every few paces to stare at the two statues. A large fly buzzed about, and the buck flicked his tail at it.

It minced past a buttonwood bush, came into the open again and stopped to watch us. Although small, the buck had rather stocky legs. The reddish color on its sides darkened on the back and its throat and belly were snow-white. Its muzzle was stubby and seemed large in proportion to its head.

We watched it for at least five minutes before it started to move again. Then suddenly its head came up and its tail flashed erect. It had spotted the jeep we had left parked across the flat. In a second the little buck had bounded into the buttonwood thicket and was gone. Watson let out a yell and slapped me on the back. Then he paced off the distance to the spot where the buck had stood. It was 51 feet.

"You'll never get another chance like that," Watson said. "I'm still jittery inside."

On the way back the guardian of the key deer was jubilant, for he has taken many visitors to Big Pine Key without ever seeing one. Later Watson showed me his reports on some of the deer that had been killed on the highway and some skins he had saved. One buck was 28 inches at the shoulder, 42 inches long and weighed 73 pounds. A doe which carried an unborn fawn was 22 inches at the shoulder and had an estimated weight of 38 pounds. The largest buck ever to be measured was 31 inches at the shoulder and weighed 107 pounds.

By comparison, larger males of the common whitetail deer stand 36 to 40 inches at the shoulder, are 70 to 77 inches long and weigh 150 to 300 pounds, sometimes even more. Thus a big white-tail buck may be four times as heavy as a key deer buck.

The habits of the key deer are as odd as their size. They are strong swimmers and cross from one key to another, sometimes swimming more than a mile. Once Watson saw a buck which had run onto one of the long highway bridges and was overtaken by a car. The frightened deer leaped the railing and executed a spectacular dive into the water 18 feet below. Swimming rapidly to the shore, it melted into a dense growth of mangrove.

As the deer increase in numbers more visitors to the keys are spotting them. Recently a man reported to Watson that he had seen five in a group. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, it now looks like the key deer will be around for a long time. After all, they were here when the Spaniard Hernando D'Escalente Fontaneda was captured by the Indians on these same islands in 1545 and lived to write about it. His account contains the first written record of these little deer of the Florida Keys.