Our Work

What activities do we intend to conduct and why:
• What specific activities does SOKD conduct:
SOKD was formed in part as a follow-on effort by Florida Keys resident volunteers who worked with federal and state wildlife agencies and the US Dept. of Agriculture to save and protect the federally endangered Key Deer during a devastating screwworm outbreak during 2016-early 2017. The organization’s mission statement is: “To advocate on behalf of the Florida Key Deer population to assure they receive ethical treatment and protection and to reduce human-caused illness, injury and death events.”

Specifically, SOKD intends to provide aid in the form of volunteer labor and financial assistance for the following activities which the region’s state and federal agencies are presently not providing (although they are in support):
• Offer labor and financial assistance for local veterinarians’ acting as Good Samaritans to provide basic aid to injured Key deer: The financial assistance will primarily include laboratory test fees for blood or other samples, antibiotics, portable x-ray rental, etc., so that the veterinarians are not obligated to always self-finance these costs and may thus become dissuaded from volunteering their help (as has happened in the past). Note: The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Dept. of Ecological Services who administer all endangered species allows for veterinary intervention on Key deer on all non-refuge lands. Past Key Deer National Refuge management (also USFWS) had allowed veterinarians to provide aid on refuge-owned areas as well. SOKD is working to have the USFWS Dept. of Ecological Services re-establish the past status quo so deer-in-distress can be treated regardless of location.

• Provide volunteer labor (sample collection and mailing) and laboratory testing costs for a long-term Johne’s disease monitoring program throughout the Key deer range: Johne’s disease is an incurable, ultimately fatal bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis (MAP), which has become a very serious nation-wide problem particularly on dairy farms (over 80% of US dairy farms are now believed to harbor infected animals). Recently, MAP has been classified as a “zoonosis” organism, i.e. can be transmitted from animal to human, where it has been detected in individuals with Crohn’s disease. MAP was first detected in Key deer in 1996. Since then, several academic studies have been conducted which continue to show the presence of MAP within the Key deer population, however, up to the last study ending in 2012 its presence seemed limited to a sub-herd that lives within a somewhat geographically isolated area. In the past few months since SOKD’s gradual formation, participating individuals have exchanged observations and photos of deer from outside the known infected region that exhibit potential clinical signs of MAP. The spread of this disease into the core Key deer herds could be devastating and will need major changes in deer management. Since no organized effort to monitor MAP’s existing range and its potential spread is in place by academia or state and federal agencies, without SOKD’s efforts the disease spread will remain unknown for very dangerous periods of time. The establishment of a network of resident volunteers through SOKD is an ideal vehicle to conduct the needed monitoring. If a (trained) volunteer locates (or is told by other residents about) a deer exhibiting potential clinical signs of MAP (primarily severe emaciation and submandibular edema), he/she will (when possible) collect from the ground that animal’s fresh stool sample, as well as acquire photo documentation. The sample will then be sent either to U. of Wisconsin’s Johne’s disease research center or U. of Georgia for testing for MAP. SOKD provides funding for the test and mailing. Results will be shared with academia and state and federal wildlife agencies on an on-going basis.

• Provide testing and public education efforts to eliminate human-caused sources of MAP: the 2012 MAP study tested not only animal samples but also water and sediment samples from fresh water sources the deer routinely use for drinking. A stand-out source of MAP was found on Little Palm Island Resort – a luxury resort – in the form of an artificial fresh water pond/fountain. As one of our first activities, SOKD intends to inform and then work with the resort management and owners to eliminate this “fountain of death”, since it is in the resort’s own best interest to do so. This can be done by first fully cleaning the small pond, then (as one option) install a UV sterilization system in its recirculating pump plumbing. SOKD will also continue to test other controllable sources with residents’ support (e.g. garden fountains and rain water cachements) in order to eliminate or minimize the spread of MAP among the deer through drinking water at present and, through periodic sampling, into the future.

• Work to reduce Key Deer injuries/deaths due to motor vehicle collisions, and have the Florida Dept. of Transportation (FDOT) install “Deer Crossing” warning signs along US1 in areas that contain Key deer subpopulations but presently lack such signage: Collisions of Key deer with motor vehicles has long been recognized as by far the primary cause of Key deer mortality. Currently, 700-800 Key deer are believed to exist, and over 100 get killed by vehicles each year – i.e. 12-14% of the entire world population. Presently, there are signs warning motorists of deer (and a mandatory lowering of the speed limit at night on US1) on Big Pine and No Name Keys where the core herds reside. However, there are significant and extremely important sub-herds on several adjoining keys, some of which have been artificially reintroduced there in the past decade at great expense in an effort to expand the Key deer’s limited habitat. No warning signs presently exist there, however, and many residents and most likely the majority of tourists are completely unaware deer inhabit those islands. Hence collisions and deaths occur there regularly which, due to the relatively small sizes of those sub-herds, are extremely significant. SOKD will work with supportive county agencies to have FDOT install the much needed signage.

Additional activities aimed at reducing car collision-caused deer mortalities include raising motorists’ awareness of the importance of abiding the lowered speed limit in deer-frequented areas. One tactic already being implemented (with positive public feedback) is having volunteers stand and display appropriate signs in strategic areas on Big Pine Key during high-traffic periods in the late afternoons/evenings when deer activity increases.

• Provide labor, technical resource, and (when possible and appropriate) financial support for collaborative research projects with academic institutions: Several of the SOKD’s present Board and general members have environmental research backgrounds and ties with the academic research community that has worked on Key deer in the past. We are also gaining unprecedented support from major university veterinarian researchers and staff, and state and federal researchers to join SOKD. Through such coalition, SOKD intends to aid in organizing and participating in future research projects targeting Key deer. In some cases, specialized equipment (e.g. infrared aerial survey imaging technology) is available at no cost through SOKD members. One project already in the planning stages is the utilization of IR thermal imaging to conduct population surveys on several outer islands that have historically had small deer sub-populations but their fate is presently unknown.

• Conduct fundraising and public outreach activities: SOKD intends to conduct both local and social media fundraisers. Locally, these involve social events at restaurants and public venues that donate the space, food, etc. Local performing artists have also expressed an interest in performing for SOKD events. Additionally, fundraising efforts will be done through social media. Many of the local events, and world-wide outreach through social media are also utilized by SOKD to provide the public with increased knowledge about the Key deer, their fragile existence status and what people can do to help (other than donations). SOKD reaches out to and works with the local Chamber of Commerce, since the deer are considered a prime and unique regional tourist attraction.

• Who participates in the activities:
SOKD has 3 main groups of members: 1) a 4-member Board; 2) members resident to the Florida Keys; 3) non-resident or part-time resident members. Initial project planning and interaction with outside agencies, groups or individuals is usually done through group 1, with advisory input by groups 2 and 3 when possible. Activities such as rendering aid to veterinarians (e.g. obtaining supplies, pick-up and transport of samples, etc.) involves groups 1 and 2. Similarly, involvement in the Johne’s disease monitoring program, including sample collection involves primarily volunteers from group 2 (and 3 for part-time residents) and group 1 for sample/results management and reporting. Activities such as efforts to clean-up known sources of infection (i.e. pond on Little Palm Island Resort) involves all three groups – with group 3 being extremely valuable through direct communication to the resort – thus demonstrating mass support for the activity. All groups will be similarly involved in efforts to provide better road signage and reduce traffic-caused deer fatalities.

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