The Florida Keys have plenty of attractions to bring travelers from all over the globe – an otherworldly highway of bridges over the sea, a massive, empty fortress on the edge of American waters, and the sea-side town of Key West at the center of it all (all of which you can learn more about in my last post here).
These man-made wonders aren’t the only thing that makes the keys special. The keys are home to many different animals, all of which play a role in the systems that make this destination unique. Believe it or not, even things like poisonous plants and mosquito are essential building blocks for the nature that so enchants us. As travelers, it is our responsibility to protect and respect these living beings (except the mosquito biting you, we all have permission to kill those rude ladies with a well-aimed slap), even if it means we don’t get that selfie we’d love to have, or get to hike through a cave or island with nesting animals.
Why is this our responsibility? As I mentioned before, each species plays a role in creating the environments that we travel so far to visit. If we value these places, it wouldn’t be right to leave it any lesser when we return home. Local people and future generations also deserve to have these environments and their inhabitants protected. Also, as many of us are animal lovers, and it is important to consider the consequences of anything that we do. The story of the key deer of the Florida Keys is a good example of why we must be careful, and the consequences of not doing so.
The key deer has the long and illustrious scientific name Odocoileus virginianus clavium – try saying THAT three times fast. For the uninitiated, the fact that this species has three components to its scientific name, means that it is a subspecies, which is basically a group of animals that has been isolated long enough to start to look like a new species, but isn’t quite there yet. The key deer is a subspecies of the more common white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which most Americans have seen at one time or another. Unlike the white-tailed deer, however, the key deer is found in only one place in the entire world, the Florida Keys (specifically from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key), and it is easily distinguished from white-tailed deer due to its tiny size.
Sadly, this special little creature has been on the brink of extinction since the 1950s, when hunting brought its population down to 50 animals. We tried to address this problem by using the Endangered Species Act to stop people from directly killing these tiny, island deer, and in 1957 the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge was established. The hope was, as it often is, that if we gave them some room, and kept the stressors of human activity away from them, that their numbers might start to grow. And they did! For a time.
The highway that makes the Florida Keys such a road trip destination isn’t innocent in this story. Since key deer have lived near ever increasing numbers of humans for decades, they have lost their fear of people and the roads that allow us to explore the keys with ease. However, even if they hadn’t lost that fear, Highway 1 cuts through their refuge, and this forces the deer to cross the road in order to find food and mates. Each crossing puts them in danger of cars that are move through the refuge, especially at night, when the deer are most active and people are the least able to make them out in time to slow down. So, altogether, this means that the popularity of Highway 1, as well as people’s mindset while they are travelling it, has created a continuing threat to the key deer (along with other issues that you can read more about here).
So now you’re asking, how can I be part of the solution and not the problem? Well, if you ever find yourself driving through the keys, SLOW DOWN. There are plenty of signs informing you when you are entering their refuge area, and special speed limits imposed on the highway here as well. With a population of only around 300, a single deer killed on the road is a risk for the species. If you’re passengers complain, you can tell them to Google the key deer so they can look at their cute little faces and that they really should have gone to the bathroom earlier.
Travel and happiness go hand in hand for many of us, but often we don’t think about what impact we have on our journey. We should always respect the places we visit, and the people and animals that call those places home.