Bambi Bump-Off

Who's killing the endangered key deer? The bloody mess has caused a scandal in paradise.

Finally, on January 16, a third neighbor was driving at night near the corner of Coconut Palm Street and Kyle Boulevard, about 250 feet from the nearest home, when she spotted a fallen deer. The animal had been hit by a car and "looked sad when the headlights shined on it."

Police called ecologist Jason Schmidt, who headed to the scene. "The sheriff's deputy said it was routine roadkill, but when I got there, it was anything but routine," he says. Schmidt found a long and distinctive spear — of the sort shot from a spearfishing gun — had pierced the right side of the deer's neck.

Soon Schmidt determined the animal wouldn't recover. His wife Page, also a refuge biologist, euthanized it with a .22. "It's the most humane method," she says. "It's quick."

Tim Chapman/Newscom

The spear could be the best clue yet. Berger asked that it not be described in this story because it could, he hopes, "lead to the killer.... If I find the gun it came from, I'll have a strong case.

"Who would do this to an animal?" he continues, displaying a picture of the wounded animal. "This is why we get torqued."

Three days after that killing, on January 19, at 8:48 a.m., a threatening e-mail from someone named "Jason Martin" or "Fat Bingo" arrived in the refuge's general e-mail inbox. It referred to a plan to charge homeowners $47,000 in mitigation costs if they wanted to build a home on Big Pine Key. (That plan was partially rejected by commissioners, but some locals believe it's still under consideration.)

"It's time to euthanize the deer, in my opinion," the e-mail reads. "You arrogant shits, for $47,000 we could get rid of all the pain-in-the-ass deer."

So far Berger hasn't tracked down the e-mail's author, and no one has been charged in the killings. As for motive, Berger won't say much, and Big Piners have mixed opinions. "I think it's a twisted person or maybe some kids putting on a buzz," says Dave, a 48-year-old Port Pine Heights resident who declined to give his last name. "But these deer can be annoying. I'm putting up a fence to keep them out because they eat every bit of vegetation."

Refuge manager Anne Morkill points out the possibility of a more nefarious cause. "There's a love-hate relationship with key deer," says the pink-cheeked, sandal-wearing ranger. "There are folks who love them and feed them in their back yards, but there's also a level of frustration because of county rules related to them."

Beal of Skeeter's Marine is one of the island's most frustrated property owners. The 64-year-old bought the land in 1988. But county rules — in part related to the deer — have made it virtually impossible to either sell or develop the $4- to $5-million, 2.6-acre site on Overseas Highway.

While Beal doesn't support killing the deer, he sympathizes with the perpetrators. "The [government] has gone overboard in protecting the deer," he says. "The more you get people upset about development, the more this is going to happen."

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