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Development Pushes Animals From Florida Keys

Drive down Florida's route US 1 to Key West and you might find yourself thinking of Jimmy Buffet and tropical palms. But before you succumb to tropical fantasy, a serious tourist bulletin comes from your radio: Slow down - you're entering a deer refuge.

The miniature Key deer, of which only about 300 remain, is an endangered species that often cross the road in this area.

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The Florida Keys, which extend from below Miami to 90 miles north of Cuba, are home to 11 species of endangered mammals, reptiles, and birds. Finally, conservationists say, this tourist mecca has moved into action, as more than a dozen groups struggle to rescue turtles, gulls, and manatees from the brink of extinction.

The culprit, in most cases, is rapid growth. Progress has become a fighting word as Hawaiian-shirted tourists and residents lured by fantasies of writing the "great novel" flock to a laid-back, sun-drenched lifestyle.

The rush has meant that some species have declined in numbers as their living space has succumbed to bulldozers. In Key Largo, the breeding ground of an endangered butterfly - the Schaus swallowtail - has shrunk to a few small hummocks.

"We are losing so many species at such a rapid rate," says Laurie Macdonald, an endangered species expert for the Sierra Club.

Today, over a dozen animal groups and government agencies are rescuing, housing and, in some cases, finding homes for animals in hopes of reversing the losses.

Becky Barron, director of Wildlife Rescue of the Florida Keys, which saves an estimated 400 animals a year, spends many days pulling fish hooks out of herons and untangling them from fishing lines. About 100 animals occupy her current holding area at any given time, including loggerhead turtles, laughing gulls, and homeless exotic pets such as pythons.

"This is the last stop [for some birds] before they head to South America - other than mangroves and the Dry Tortugas [a group of islands 90 miles off Key West]" she says.

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Many frail birds, lured to fishing boats for handouts, become covered with diesel fuel, which destroys their waterproofing and allows chill to set in. In a weakened condition, they can't fish and begin to starve. Others are hit by cars.

Ms. Barron's volunteers use mobile trailers and boats to get to stranded whales and dolphins. "They need to be taken care of 24 hours a day because they can't keep themselves on the surface of the water. If they become unconscious or fall asleep, they will drown," she says

A few miles north of Barron's Key West office, Key deer, a two-foot high subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, graze on mangroves and thatch palm berries in an 8,000-acre refuge that sits in Big Pine and Noname keys.

"The islands have been shrinking as the ocean is rising," explains Mike McMinn of the National Key Deer Refuge there. "There's less land for them there." Although most deer are killed by cars, dogs and overfeeding by neighbors also contribute.

Critical to the Key deer's problem is a shortage of natural fresh water, found only in the federal refuge, whose staff struggle for funds to buy existing land before developers do. This means the population is limited to two Keys.

Last year, 104 deer deaths were recorded, which brought good news along with the bad. With so many deaths, might the population be larger than previously thought? Even if the deer number several hundred, McMinn says, their habitat is diminishing, making survival a continuous challenge.

Further north, in Grassy Key, 17 dolphins cavort at the Dolphin Research Center, which conducts research in part with funds from its dolphin swim program. Despite controversy over maintaining dolphins in captivity, the center also uses dolphins to teach learning disabled children, and it rescues stranded dolphins and whales. "Our goal is to rehabilitate them and return them to the wild," says spokesperson Dana Carnegie of the stranded mammals.

Sadly, well-meaning rescuers say that most animals they rescue die - about 60 percent, according to Barron. The death rate for rescued marine mammals may be higher because many species would not allow themselves to become visible to rescuers were they not so ill. "The percentage is high," concedes Ms. Carnegie.

So why the extensive effort?

Says Carnegie: "We believe they are intelligent and sensitive creatures. We can't stand to see them die, thrashing on a sand bar while the sun bakes them. That compels us to save them from what we believe is a horrible death."

With the exception of saving rapidly disappearing species, the major benefit of the rescue programs is public education, according to Ms. Macdonald of the Sierra Club. "The greatest benefit of these programs comes from public education," she says. "We come to understand the threats they are under. Their lives become more real to us." Barron, whose main focus is also education, agrees.

But how to find the balance between humans and the environment? Construction in the Keys is currently under a moratorium, but growth pressures continue, as the 'Kokomo' fantasy of emerald waters and breezy palms beckons winter-chilled tourists and would-be Keys dwellers.

Marine anthropologist Sarah Meltzoff of the University of Miami suggests that the strain on the environment will continue because the infrastructure of civilization, including highways and airports, makes it easy to overwhelm the fragile paradise of the Keys. The pressure is totally enormous. There's no stopping it.

"It's linked to greed," says Meltzoff.

The irony - that humans fascinated by the area's pristine beauty may be destroying it - is not lost on conservationists such as Barron.

"Animals and people share the world at the same time. The animals are trying to do what they have done for generations. But we've forced them to adapt to our new technologies and new ways of living. The animals are getting the bad end of the deal."

Endangered Species in The Florida Keys:

Key Largo wood rat

Key deer

Key Largo cotton mouse

Lower Keys marsh rabbit

West Indian/Florida manatee

Schaus swallowtail butterfly

Atlantic green turtle

American crocodile

Leatherback turtle

Atlantic hawksbill turtle

Atlantic Ridley turtle

Source: Sierra Club

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