The endangered Key deer, the smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer found throughout much of North America, are perfectly adapted to surviving in the tropical island habitats of the lower Florida Keys. They feed on over 150 types of native plants that grow wild with some of their favorites being red mangrove, black mangrove seed pods, thatch palm berries, figs, gumbo limbo, and pineland acacia. They find food in the saltiest of habitats, including feeding on seagrass that washes ashore, all the way inland to the pine rockland and hardwood hammock habitats. They have even adapted quite well to living alongside people, and you’ll see them foraging on lawns, landscaping and non-native plants as well.

Key Deer feeding

We like to say, “How you behave can save.” Please don’t feed the Key deer; they are wild animals and Mother Nature has given them all the skills they need to survive. Feeding or touching them is also against the law. Appreciate them, but please don’t touch or feed them. We tell this story over and over; it’s one that resonates with many people but seems to be a hard sell to others, including some visitors and residents. When Key deer associate people with food, bad things happen. We need your continued help in spreading this message.

Feeding Key deer changes their natural behavior. When Key deer lose their natural caution around people, rather than running away, they approach trustingly, leaving them susceptible to poaching. Yes, poaching happens and is a direct result of being habituated to handouts from people. Comfort around people, cars and human development can also lead to higher frequency of dog attacks, entanglements in trash, netting, ropes and buckets, and drowning in canals. Loitering along roadsides and crossing roads to travel to consistent feeding stations increases the possibility of auto injuries and deaths. In fact, road mortality is the leading cause of death for Key deer. Loitering along roadsides can also increase the unhealthiness of the deer as they are wasting valuable time waiting for a free meal versus searching for food as nature intended.

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Often these free handouts offered by people are unhealthy (chips, pretzels, fries, etc.) and sometimes lethal (cracked corn, dry pet foods). We won’t get into the details here but foods like cracked corn and other dry pet food products can kill. Numerous necropsies through the years have shown this to be true. Even food bags are dangerous if accessible to wildlife. Just last week we were sent a photo of a mature Key deer, with a large potato chip bag ensnared on its head, that had stepped into a canal and drowned. This sad situation could have been avoided.

Even so called “healthy food” contributes to unhealthy behaviors. Even if “healthy food” is offered by a visitor or resident, the cost to an individual animal in changing its natural behavior is perilous. Key deer are more prone to disease transmission when they gather in unnatural numbers at feeding areas. Diseases like Lumpy-Jaw, Johne’s disease and external parasites (lice, ticks, etc.) spread easily when Key deer gather. Knowing where to find natural food can also be challenging if behaviors are altered. Mothers (does) teach their babies (fawns) where to find food. If the doe teaches a fawn to depend on human handouts, it will become dependent on that food source and struggle to lead a healthy wild life. They’ll linger at roadways and other feeding stations. And what happens to the youngster when the food source disappears? We ask your help in educating others about the hazards of feeding Key deer. Often understanding the “why” helps people make informed decisions and contributes to human behavior changes.

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Right now there are several young fawns and other deer that can be seen feeding on grasses and other plants along the roadway edges in the National Key Deer Refuge. These deer are trying to lead an honest living but are susceptible to well-meaning visitors offering food. We will be looking for volunteers who might be interested in being part of our Key Deer Outreach Team that will be present on weekends and evenings in some feeding hotspots. Specific information about these volunteer positions will be coming shortly, but in the meantime, if you are interested, please email keydeer@fws.gov to get on the contact list. We can all make a difference in helping the Key deer lead a healthy existence by not feeding them. They’ll have a better chance to live their lives as nature intended, and that is a beautiful thing to witness.

Kristie Killam, park ranger, Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex, Big Pine Key

Kristie Killam, park ranger Key Deer

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