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A Key deer in velvet. Photo by USFWS.

First, do no harm: keeping wildlife wild and healthy

Vero Beach, Florida – The old doctors’ adage “First, do no harm” also applies to wildlife, in this case Key deer.

Legitimately trying to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, well-meaning people have been providing a variety of food products (corn, dog/cat food, etc.) for Key deer and other wildlife.

But feeding them could do more harm than good. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) strongly urges the public not to feed wildlife, particularly Key deer.

The miniature deer have had a rough year. First there was the New World screwworm infestation that started in October of 2016, and then Hurricane Irma – nearly a year to the day afterwards – which has affected their food and water supplies. The South Florida Ecological Services Field Office and Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex are working together and with many partners, including the public, to conserve the Key deer and other wildlife populations in the Florida Keys.

While feeding wildlife can seem like a good idea, several studies have shown that supplemental feeding is extremely unhealthy, especially for Key deer. The sudden and increased intake of grain and/or carbohydrates results in acidic conditions in a deer’s rumen (stomach). Known as “ruminal acidosis,” it kills the bacteria necessary for digestion and causes bloating, diarrhea, enteritis and even death.

“We recognize the intentions of some are to help the deer, but feeding Key deer unnatural foods like dog food can cause serious health issues. Naturally available foods are re-sprouting following the storm, which offer the appropriate nutrients to Key deer,” said Dr. Roel Lopez, director for the Texas A&M University Natural Resources Institute (NRI). NRI is currently working with the Service to assess the post-Irma status of the Key deer.

Additionally, the Service is monitoring available natural forage opportunities for Key deer and is finding sufficient forage throughout the Key deer’s range. Equally important, that foliage is increasing as plants recover.

“We appreciate the community’s vested interest in protecting the deer,” said Dan Clark, Refuge Manager, Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex. “That’s why we need as many people as possible to understand the serious health risks associated with supplemental feeding.”

If you see someone providing supplemental food to deer, please explain the health risks and ask them to please stop. Also, if you see supplemental food in natural areas, please remove it.

The availability of fresh water was limited after Hurricane Irma, but that situation is improving as well. “After the storm we initiated an emergency supplemental watering program. With the recent rains, the salinity in some freshwater areas has dropped and more fresh water is available for wildlife,” said Clark.

Service monitoring has shown that supplemental watering in the Port Pine Heights, Koehn and Eden Pines neighborhoods is no longer needed. “We’ll keep you updated as freshwater sources become suitable for wildlife in other neighborhoods and the need for supplemental water is over,” said Clark. “Thanks to everyone who helped provide emergency water to wildlife.”

Contact

Ken Warren, Public Affairs Officer
ken_warren@fws.gov, (772) 469-4323

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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