This story contains graphic images.
Nine months ago when Valerie Preziosi moved from San Diego to Big Pine Key, she became part of an unofficial herd: the residents of the remote island who keep watch over the official herd of famously cute Key deer.
The home she shares with her husband, oceanographer Jan Svejkovsky, sits on a three-acre lot at the end of Long Beach Road, a sun-baked spit fringed with mangrove that wraps around Coupon Bight. The bight is well known for good tarpon fishing and regularly draws the toy-sized deer. One day last spring, the former critical care nurse spotted a stately buck with a crown of antlers in full velvet. Preziosi is quick to say the deer are not pets. Don’t feed them. Don’t play with them. But love them? That’s totally allowed.
She and her husband named the buck Toro, Spanish for bull, relishing their new Florida Keys home among the herd.
“Every day we have deer coming,” she said. “We have deer trails that cross the mangroves. We know where they have their babies.”
They never in a million years suspected a grisly outbreak of flesh-eating New World screwworm would infect the deer, turning the visits into a daily parade of horror.
Preziosi, an amateur photographer, began documenting Toro’s visits. Earlier this year, a stunning shot of the buck wading to a mangrove island in the fading evening light placed in the top 100 pictures for the Nature Conservancy’s popular annual photo contest. On the conservancy’s web site, it appears alongside shots of frolicking arctic polar bear cubs, a lava lake in Ethiopa and other remarkable images.
As the months went by, Preziosi snapped more pictures of a healthy Toro, feeding on the mangroves in the couple’s yard or swimming in the bight. Sometimes when the couple sat in their backyard, the buck would wander up, lay down and lick their toes, Preziosi said. The deer in the neighborhood, part of the herd of about 1,000, are mostly tame. And while locals know not to feed them, living side by side in the Florida outback has made them close neighbors.
On Sept. 27, with the rutting season well underway and males turning up with typical head and neck wounds from the mating ritual, Preziosi clicked a picture and spotted an open wound under Toro’s left antler. Sick deer had been turning up in the neighborhood with festering wounds. Staff from the refuge had even shot a suffering deer in her yard several months earlier, she said. So she called a neighbor who is a vet, worried that Toro might have a similar infection.
The vet, she said, told her because the endangered animals are protected by law, there was nothing he could do. Preziosi said she called the National Key Deer Refuge and was told the small staff could euthanize suffering deer, or free trapped deer, but generally don’t disturb the wild herd. At that point, staff were already investigating the illness, officials said, but did not confirm the screwworm infestation until Sept. 30, after pathologists at the University of Florida and National Veterinary Services Lab in Iowa positively identified maggots.
The next time Preziosi said she spotted Toro was on Oct. 4. The wound had worsened, oozing a foul-smelling liquid. When she tried to approach him, the buck fled. Preziosi said she emailed neighbors trying to track him down, worried that he was suffering. No one had seen him.
“He needs to be euthanized but we can’t locate him. Multiple emails, texts and flyers sent around the neighborhood looking for Toro,” she noted in an email chronicling the events.
Wounded deer were turning up everywhere. Normally quiet, the deer bellowed in pain, Preziosi said.
“They never make a sound except when they’re little babies,” she said. “The amount of suffering we saw this animal go through was just crazy, with maggots crawling all over this wound.”
Eleven days later on Oct. 15, on their way to a community meeting about the outbreak, Preziosi and her husband spotted a man trying to corral a sick deer. They pulled over and immediately recognized Toro, she said. The buck had lost weight. The wound had grown to the size of a lemon and exposed skull. Preziosi said she could smell it from where she stood. It smelled like death, she said.
The trio tried to keep the buck cornered until wildlife officers showed up, but he broke free. They followed him.
When wildlife officers arrived, they fired two quick gun shots to the buck’s neck. Preziosi snapped her last picture of Toro: the two officers hoisting his limp body into the back of their pickup truck. It was a horrifying end unthinkable just months earlier.
Five years ago, Preziosi was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to take time off work. She and Svejkovsky are both outdoor adventurers: they landed in the Keys during a sidetrip, stayed at the nearby Deer Run Bed and Breakfast and almost immediately decided to move. They ended up buying a house across the street. Preziosi planned to focus on fixing up their house until she’s ready to return to work. The couple also bought a boat for the first time, despite living on the water for 30 years, she said. But when it arrived this month, they kept putting off picking it up, still shaken by the deer’s death.
“They finally called and said you have to take your boat,” she said, but it remains unused. “It’s hard to smile or have kind of a happy moment because it feels wrong.”