The rescued Key deer is eating well and enjoying life at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo_Photo Courtesy of Santa Fe College
For most of the almost three-hour flight from Key West to Gainesville, Florida, on May 1 the tiny Key deer fawn that Erick Mahle had in his airplane was very quiet. It wasn’t until the small Grumman Tiger aircraft hit a little turbulence near the end of the flight that the fawn whimpered a little bit.
“I was relieved when he made some noise,” said Mahle, a volunteer pilot who transported the baby deer in conjunction with a program called Pilots N Paws. “He’d been super quiet and I was starting to worry that he might not be all right.”
Fortunately, the fawn was quite “all right” and when they landed at the University Air Center in Gainesville, Mahle gave him to Kathy Russell, curator of the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo. Russell took the fawn to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine for a full check-up and initial care—where he checked out just fine.
It was the culmination of a long journey for the baby deer, which a few days earlier had been found abandoned and in questionable health on Big Pine Key near National Key Deer Refuge.
“The fawn was collected April 29 by Refuge Law Enforcement Officer Steve Berger after receiving calls that it was abandoned. Observers had seen the fawn approaching other deer and being ignored or turned away,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Supervisory Biologist Ashleigh Blackford, who at the time was acting refuge manager. “The fawn was estimated to be 3-4 days old. We believed it had been abandoned for at least two days, but don’t know why it had been abandoned.”
The orphaned fawn was taken to Dr. Doug Mader, a local veterinarian who voluntarily assists the Service with Key deer. The doctor checked out the fawn, determined it wasn’t in immediate danger and administered fluids.
From there, staff from the South Florida Ecological Services Office and the refuge worked to find the fawn a permanent home, and it was taken to the Monroe County Sherriff’s animal farm in Key West, under the care Jeanne Selander. She and her team provided food, shelter and excellent care. But the Service needed to confirm that this fawn had received colostrum from its mother before it was abandoned—something that couldn’t be confirmed at facilities in the Keys.
“It’s vital that white-tailed deer receive colostrum from their mothers because of antibodies it contains. We didn’t know whether this fawn had, which created an urgency for additional veterinary care,” Blackford said. “We had to get it to a facility that could make that determination.”
Enter Pilots N Paws, the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo and the University of Florida.
The rescued Key deer fawn gets acquainted with his new surroundings at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo_Photo Courtesy of Santa Fe College
The Service has a strong relationship with the zoo via working together on Florida grasshopper sparrows. Service Biologist Brian Powell reached out to see if they were interested in a Key deer fawn for their planned exhibit featuring Florida native animals. Russell enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Blackford then made arrangements with Pilots N Paws to get the fawn flown to Gainesville and Russell took the fawn to the university.
“When the university confirmed the fawn had received colostrum based on proteins observed in its blood, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. Frankly, there was some cheering too!” said Blackford.
Russell said, “He got great care at the university. When he got to us at the zoo, he weighed 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) and now (on May 20) he’s up to 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds). He’s eating like a champ and adjusting well…very calm and playful. The prognosis is great. He’ll be fine.”
Having seen to it that the fawn was healthy and well-adjusted, the next major milestone for the zoo staff was naming him. “We chose ‘Blue.’ He’s named for Blue Hole, a large fresh water pond at National Key Deer Refuge where you can find Key deer,” said Russell.
For now, Blue will be quarantined behind-the-scenes, receiving top notch care from the zoo’s staff. “In the future, guests will be able to see this tiny deer across the bridge from the American alligators,” said Russell.
And once Blue is put on public display, another airplane ride will happen.
Erick Mahle on airplane with fawn in Key West_by Ashleigh Blackford/USFWS
Mahle’s looking forward to flying up to the zoo with his family for a visit. “With Pilots N Paws, we usually fly dogs and cats. Having an endangered Key deer fawn as a passenger was a unique experience,” he said. “My wife is pregnant with our first child—a little girl. After she’s born we’re definitely going to fly to Gainesville to see this little deer.”
The endangered Key deer is the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer. Adult males, or bucks, weigh 55 to 75 pounds. Adult females, or does, weigh slightly less. On average, the deer stand only about 24 to 32 inches at the shoulder. Poaching and habitat loss had reduced the number of Key deer to only a few dozen animals by the 1950s, but establishment of the refuge and subsequent listing of the deer as endangered in 1967 has allowed for protection and recovery of the species.
By Ken Warren/USFWS