Brought back from the brink of extinction over the last 50 years, miniature Key deer represent a qualified success in the troubled history of people-animal relations.
They appear in quiet neighborhoods here in the evening, hanging around houses like living lawn statuary. But there's an unpleasant side to this natural wonder.
The 300 or so Key deer, found nowhere else, are preserved in part by an extensive series of government-mandated protections, ranging from low (and strictly enforced) speed limits to restrictions on development.
The first of the regulations was applied about 50 years ago, when people began to threaten the deer's existence. The 8,000-acre National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957. The refuge comprises numerous keys, but Big Pine forms the largest part of it.
Not everybody is happy about the sacrifices of time and money the deer demand.
Stuart Marcus, assistant manager of the refuge, pointed out fresh graffiti along Key Deer Boulevard --"Kids Before Deer"--written in red letters. It reflects the view of those who would like to see a new school built on Big Pine Key.
Through second grade, the 280 school-age children living here can attend classes on Big Pine. But afterward they must travel an average of 12 miles, or about 40 minutes each way, including stops, according to Kerry Highsmith, director of operations and facilities for the Monroe County school board.
"We're not against the school," Marcus said. "We're just against a school that might be detrimental to an endangered species."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the deer could suffer because the school would draw more people to Big Pine, increase traffic and reduce deer habitat even further. The school, for example, would have to be fenced, and that would restrict the animals' movement.
Key deer, which average just over two feet high at the shoulder, are closely related to the full-size Virginia white-tailed deer.
Ages ago, scientists reason, deer wandered south from the Florida mainland. As the Wisconsin glacier receded, the sea rose, dividing the land into the Florida Keys and stranding the deer, which had to survive on less land, food and fresh water than their Northern cousins.
"Eventually the deer either adapted or died," Marcus said. "Then through many years they sort of downsized."
They reproduce later than standard-size deer and are less likely to bear twins. But Key deer have reached a compromise with their changing environment, including an ability to tolerate some salt in their drinking water. Fresh water is precious in their habitat.
"If they were left to their own devices, they would get along quite well," Marcus said.
But, he emphasized, the 1970 population in Big Pine of about 700 has grown to nearly 5,000 permanent residents.
So the little deer must contend with such threats as lost tourists in rental cars, big dogs and poachers.
Marcus told of two 18-year-olds imprisoned for beating a Key deer to death with a baseball bat. He believes the victim must have lost its protective wariness of humans as a result of many snacks fed by well-meaning people.
Peg Riepe, who recently moved away from Big Pine, is a longtime champion of the diminutive deer. Over the years, she came to know many of them by names, such as Grandma, Dusty and Blondie, and can tell their life stories.
They collected at her home, visiting with her dog, greeting her when she stepped outside. One doe approached an unfamiliar reporter to sniff her hands and notebook.
Riepe said she used her nurse's training and natural remedies to care for injured deer, and she fed them, "but with intelligence." She lured them close enough to treat with a little grain, for example. In the wild, deer don't eat grain.
"They are beautiful, gentle creatures, and they should have as much of a chance as anybody else," Riepe said. But she recalled accompanying her own son to a 6 a.m. school bus; he spent a total of four hours in transit each day.
"It doesn't equate, the deer in preference to the children," she said, adding that there is real anger about that on Big Pine Key.
"There are those who get very warm over it," said shopkeeper Edith Swinney. "I don't see why everybody can't live happily together with the deer."
Perhaps they can. After weeks of mediation, the school board is considering buying a church and converting the sanctuary and classroom building, according to Highsmith.
"It's an existing development," he said. "The land is scarified already, so it's not Key deer habitat."
* The present population of approximately 300 Key deer is about as high as can be expected, said Stuart Marcus, assistant manager of National Key Deer Refuge. The number of deer is limited by the amount of fresh water available.
* The 8,000-acre Key Deer Refuge covers numerous keys, but most of it is on Big Pine Key. The refuge was officially established in 1957.
* As of March 1, 12 Key deer had died so far this year; nine were road kill. Last year, 68 were killed.
* The fastest you can legally drive on Big Pine Key is 45 m.p.h. on the main road, U.S. 1. At night, the speed limit on that road drops to 35, and it's 30 or 25 m.p.h. elsewhere on the key.
* About 200 speeding tickets are written in an average month.
Source: Associated Press