As they pulled out onto Key Deer Boulevard, Kenzie burst out, “I don’t want to believe there’s nothing we can do. I’m going to do something. I don’t know what yet, but I’m going to do something.”
Though the people and events in Island Sting are fictional, Big Pine Key, No Name Key, and the little Key deer are quite real. These miniature deer live side by side with their human neighbors and are as maligned by some citizens as they are revered by others.
At their shoulders, adult Key deer are about the same height as a German shepherd dog (24-28 inches). Fawns weigh no more than half a gallon of milk (2-4 pounds) at birth. They do not live in the wild anywhere in the world except the Florida Keys.
The majority of the population live on Big Pine Key and neighboring No Name Key. Of the less than sixteen square miles of Big Pine Key, over half is protected refuge land.
The earliest known reference to these deer dates back to 1575 and was found in the notes of a shipwrecked Spaniard held captive by the local Indians for seventeen years. Early ship log records indicate that the deer were used for food by natives and sailors. Settlement came to the islands slowly after centuries of exploration, and hunting continued long into the 1930s and ’40s. In the early 1900s hunt clubs were active, and members often used dogs to flush the deer.
Though hunting was officially banned in 1939, it wasn’t until the hiring of a tough game warden, Jack Watson, in 1946 that the deer population began to rebound. Watson was fearless. One story tells how he surprised three poachers who sneered at the odds: three to one. Watson brandished his six-shooter and explained their error. “There’s six of me.”
Another story tells of a rattlesnake bite he received while chasing poachers. He cut out the flesh surrounding the wound, relentlessly tracked the men, and, only after their capture, consulted a doctor. Watson was a gentleman, though, by family accounts. If he found a poacher’s car, he would leave a polite do-not-return note—before firing bullet holes through its gas tank.
Watson’s tough stance on poaching was a reflection of his love and respect for wildlife. He personally cared for old and injured animals, be it an ancient raccoon or a young deer. Locals fondly remember how Watson protected one deer with a broken leg by carrying it in the back seat of his car. Until its recovery, Bucky toured the islands with his head stuck out of Watson’s rear seat window. He and the game warden frequently visited schools, raising children’s awareness of the unique species.
Watson served seventeen years as game warden and effectively put the Florida Key deer population on the road to recovery.
Amazingly, in 1947, around the same time Watson began his battle, eleven-year-old Gary Allen may have begun the official effort to save the endangered Florida Key deer. He wrote letters first to President Truman and then to President Eisenhower expressing his concern about the rapidly dwindling deer population and supporting the designation of protected habitat for the deer. Some people believe this young environmentalist prompted the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge ten years later, in 1957.