Last updated on February 21st, 2020 at 11:50 am

Key Deer in Big Pine Key within the National Key Deer Refuge.
Many visitors are thrilled to see Key deer in Big Pine Key in the National Key Deer Refuge. (Photo: David Blasco)

With their big eyes, tiny stature and lack of fear of man, the endangered Key deer has probably survived because it is so darn cute.

With only 600 to 800 remaining, visitors often want to know where to see Key deer.

Now there’s a new free nature center in Big Pine Key in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. The nature center is equipped to answers visitor questions from what do they eat to where to see Key deer.

The visitor center for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex is located at the center of Big Pine Key at mile marker 30.5 on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway and is open Monday to Saturday.

Sign warning about key deer on Big Pine Key
The residents of Big Pine Key love their Key deer, whose biggest enemy is the car. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

We love Key deer but we’re killing them

Key deer catch our attention because of their mini size — you see people walking bigger dogs.  

Bucks range from 28 to 32 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 80 pounds. Does stand 24 to 28 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 65 pounds, according to refuge information. For comparison, in my home state of Wisconsin, where there are an estimated one million deer, bucks average 150 pounds.

The Key deer, the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white tailed deer and found only in the Florida Keys, was on the verge of extinction. There were only a few dozen left in the 1960s before it was listed as an endangered species. 

Their only enemy is man – their numbers were reduced by poaching and development that reduced their habitat.

Today, their big enemy is the car. While Big Pine Key enforces a reduced speed limit, cars killed 113 Key deer in nine months, according to a sign posted prominently at the Big Pine Key crossroads in February 2020.

Today the deer are spread over 22 islands of the Lower Keys, from Big Pine Key down to mile marker 15 and Sugarloaf Key and Saddlebunch Key, according to Kristie Killam, park ranger/visitor services at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges.

Traffic in Big Pine Key endangers the key deer. The "death toll" sign illustrates the danger. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Traffic in Big Pine Key endangers the Key deer, as this “roadkill” sign from February 2020 suggests, (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

In 2003 to 2004, wildlife workers moved about two dozen deer to Cudjoe and Sugarloaf Keys, where some deer were already living, in order to provide geographic diversity to make the Key deer species less vulnerable, Killam said.

Key deer face several threats  – in 2017, Hurricane Irma’s eye directly hit Big Pine Key impacting the herd and earlier that year, 135 deer were killed by an outbreak of flesh-eating screwworm.

Rising sea level also has the potential of reducing Key deer habitat.

The Key deer species is currently undergoing an every-five-year assessment as to whether it should continue on the endangered species list. A determination is expected in 2020, Killam said.

Where to see key deer: Key Deer near Blue Hole trail at National Key Deer Refuge (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
A Key deer near the Blue Hole trail at National Key Deer Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Where to see Key deer

You can see deer anywhere in Big Pine Key and adjoining No Name Key – in yards, along streets, in front of and behind businesses. But the real trick to seeing Key deer is not where to see them but when.Like all white tail deer, they are active at dawn and dusk, and it isn’t hard to spot them at those times.

Blue Hole viewing area at National Key Deer Refuge. (Photo: David Blasco)
Blue Hole viewing area at National Key Deer Refuge. An alligator was lounging directly in front of the platform. (Photo: David Blasco)

Even at mid-day, we were lucky enough to see two Key deer munching leaves in the woods right off the path around the Blue Hole, an abandoned limestone quarry that falls within the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge and is a pleasant place to visit.

The freshwater Blue Hole is sort of a green hole since Hurricane Irma. On our visit, a cooperative alligator floated directly below the viewing platform where a volunteer was answering questions.

Key Deer in Big Pine Key within the National Key Deer Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Key Deer on Big Pine Key within the National Key Deer Refuge will often approach people “to mooch,” as Ranger Kristie Killam puts it. Don’t fall to temptation!. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Tips for where to see Key deer:

  • No Name Key, a sparsely developed island east of Big Pine connected by a bridge, is largely composed of wildlife refuge land. We’ve bicycled and walked at dusk through No Name Key and have seen several deer on this lightly trafficked road.
  • Long Beach Road is the first left turn as you enter Big Pine Key with Big Pine Fishing Lodge on the corner. Those who camp at Big Pine Fishing Lodge, especially along the marsh, are likely to see Key deer at dusk and dawn. We’ve stayed at both of the bed-and-breakfast inns located on Long Beach Road and have seen deer wandering the grounds each time. The B&Bs are Deer Run Bed and Breakfast and Barnacle Bed and Breakfast.
  • At dawn or dusk, the Blue Hole area and the neighborhood at the north end of the island generally have deer visible.
  • We’ve bicycled through Middle Torch and Big Torch Keys, lightly populated islands just south of Big Pine Key, and have seen Key deer in yards there during the day. This isn’t a sure thing, but it is a nice bike ride!
Key Deer in Big Pine Key within the National Key Deer Refuge. (Photo: David Blasco)
When out on the roadside, Key deer in Big Pine Key allow people to approach. (Photo: David Blasco)

Most importantly, if you see Key deer, do not feed them. It’s illegal and it’s bad for their health. Key deer eat 150 native plants —  all healthier than potato chips. (Don’t pet or touch them either.)

When you encounter deer on the roadways, they often approach you “and try to mooch,” Ranger Killam said. It’s a bad sign that they’re used to being fed.

“Back in the woods, though, when you see them on their terms, they are different,” she added. In their natural environment, they are wary and wild.

Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Key deer antlers on a “please touch” table at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting the nature center for the Florida Keys wildlife refuges

The nature center, which replaces a storefront visitor center in Big Pine Key, opened in September 2019, and actually serves all four of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges:

  • The National Key Deer Refuge is a patchwork of tracts on 25 Lower Keys islands established in 1957 after an 11-year-old Miami boy and his Boy Scout troop led a letter-writing campaign to Congress.
  • Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1980 to protect the endangered American crocodile, is located in North Key Largo.
  • Key West National Wildlife Refuge was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 when wading birds were being slaughtered for their feathers for the hat industry. It’s comprised of backcountry islands and waters beyond Key West.
  • White Heron National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938 to protect the rare great white heron and migratory birds. It’s comprised of back country islands and waters north of the Lower Keys.
key deer in store Nancy McV Big Pine Key nature center helps you learn where to see Key deer
A Key deer buck wanders into a store in Big Pine Key. Visitors are surprised; the clerk is not. (Photo: Nancy McVicar Drake)

The visitor center focuses on the Key deer because it’s what Ranger Killam calls “the ambassador; the animal that gets you in the door; the species people are willing to stand up for.”

There’s a word for that — charismatic megafauna. People love Key deer (Killam says “they have those big eyeballs; they remind us of people”) but it’s harder to catch their interest when you talk about an endangered rat.

The visitor center draws you in because of the deer, Killam said, but the goal is to demonstrate that the Key deer  “are just one small piece of the puzzle, the whole web of life here.”

Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center, featuring American crocodiles, roseate spoonbills and other species of the Florida Keys. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

“Key” facts about key deer 

A few things I learned at the National Key Deer Refuge nature center:

  • They have adapted to the tropics by being smaller, which allows them to shed body heat.
  • Key deer prefer freshwater, but have adapted to drinking brackish water, a key to their survival.
  • Key deer can swim.
  • Key deer are social – they hang with their families near where they were born.
  • Baby Key deer are the tiniest of all, weighing 2 to 4 pounds at birth.
A newborn key deer, preserved by taxidermy, at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center. Newborn key deer weight 2 to 4 pounds. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
A newborn Key deer, preserved by taxidermy, is part of the exhibit at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center. Newborn Key deer weigh 2 to 4 pounds. This guy is the size of a child’s teddy bear. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

National Key Deer Refuge Nature Center
30587 Overseas Highway
Big Pine Key, FL 33043
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Closed Sunday)
Website
Map of National Key Deer Refuge

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