The phone has been ringing nonstop at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key, with callers notifying refuge officers of yet another endangered Key deer showing symptoms of New World screwworm.
“You can see it in their eyes that they’re trying to fight it,” Kate Watts, lead biologist at the refuge, said about the condition caused by tissue-eating screwworm maggots. “Normally, this time of year they’d be following scents [to find a mate] and instead they’re totally preoccupied by this thing in their head.”
Watts said one “zombie deer” wandered aimlessly into the enclosure under a Big Pine home, startling the unsuspecting owner who was on the way to do a load of laundry. Another was found in the middle of a park where kids were playing nearby, its head eaten away by the screwworm maggots that have caused about 83 deaths — 51 in the past two weeks — among the 1,000-member herd of Key deer, found only in the Florida Keys.
These are the same deer community members have long considered neighborhood residents. They stand around 3 feet high, no bigger than a large dog.
What hasn’t been reported is the emotional toll euthanizing deer with a bolt gun can take on the officers charged with the task. The modified pistols have a spring-loaded steel rod that causes mortality quickly after being discharged into the head of the deer, which has been necessary so far with every reported deer, Watts said.
“Being able to balance the busyness with the emotional part can be difficult. Internally. We’re heartbroken, but we’re doing our best to stay professional and respond quickly,” Watts said of herself, two other biologists with the refuge and two officers with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It’s just an emotional and dramatic time.”
She described seeing the first case of screwworm as shocking and gruesome. When cornered, the deer can panic and become aggressive, which makes it difficult for assessing the condition of deer on the refuge, Watts said.
Sgt. Linda Mixon with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said the number of euthanizations she’s witnessed has had an effect on her outside of work. This is the first case of a screwworm infestation in 50 years in the Keys.
“My friends, family — they all know I work on Big Pine Key and they’re all talking about it. I try to clarify that I haven’t been putting deer down,” she said.
For her, it’s the thought of the helpless deer, some of them very young, that follows her home at the end of the day.
Watts asked that community members keep reporting sick deer and to drive slow through Big Pine Key to minimize accidents that cause injury, which is where screwworm flies lay their eggs. People who notice what be could be symptoms of screwworm flies can call locally at (305) 470-6863 and press 7 when prompted, or toll free at (888) 404-3922.