Florida Keys woman charged with killing endangered Key deer

Key deer gather in Big Pine Key in this file photo.

Key deer gather in Big Pine Key in this file photo.

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A 77-year-old Florida Keys woman is accused of the shooting death of an endangered Key deer and could face a year in federal prison if she’s guilty.

Wendy Kilheffer of Big Pine Key shot the animal on Nov. 16, according to authorities. In addition to prison time, she would also face, if judged guilty, a $100,000 fine and a year of supervised release following her incarceration.

But a Keys environmental group that advocates the Key deer — a species of small white-tail deer unique to the Lower Keys and protected under the US Endangered Species Act — says there is more to the story. The animal, advocates say, was killed out of compassion because it was wounded and in severe distress for days.

Big Pine residents called state and federal wildlife authorities to tend to the male deer, but no one responded to the scene after more than two hours, said Valerie Preziosi, president of Save Our Key Deer Inc.

“At that time, someone took it upon themselves to put the agonized buck out of his misery with a shot to the head, as would have been done by an appropriate officer if they ever showed up,” Preziosi said in a statement.

A key deer walks wounded through the woods of Big Pine Key on Nov. 9, 2022. The deer was shot to death on Nov. 16, 2022. Save Our Key Deer

Kilheffer was charged last Thursday. She has been released on a $10,000 bond. Her attorney her, David Paul Horan, did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the case.

According to Preziosi, the situation began seven days before the deer was killed. A Big Pine Key resident found the animal “violently thrashing” between two fences with a rope entangled in its antlers and the fences. The repeated thrashing caused cuts on both sides of the deer’s body, Preziosi said.

The resident was able to free the deer, but wasn’t able to remove all the rope. Another resident contacted Save Our Key Deer, which contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s wildlife hotline.

A wounded key deer walks through the woods of Big Pine Key on Nov. 9, 2022, with a rope entangled in its antlers. The animal was shot to death on Nov. 16, 2022. Save Our Key Deer

The same day, US Fish and Wildlife Service agents and Save Our Key Deer volunteers tried unsuccessfully to find the wounded animal.

The deer wasn’t seen again until Nov. 16, the day it was killed. According to Preziosi, Big Pine residents found the buck lying down and in “extreme distress.” They removed the rope and tried giving the deer water.

“The buck drank some water, got up, but then collapsed on the street,” Preziosi said. The people at the scene again called the FWC hotline, she said.

Meanwhile, they moved the deer to a shaded area on a private property.

“The severely suffering deer was having trouble breathing and, from descriptions by people at the scene, was likely suffering from organ failure due to ‘capture myopathy’ — a condition induced by severe stress he experienced in the past days,” Preziosi said.

Preziosi said both the state and federal governments don’t have enough resources in the area to manage key deer and to respond to distressed animals. FWC and US Fish and Wildlife officials were not immediately available to respond to those criticisms.

Preziosi said the US Fish and Wildlife Service has reduced staff and volunteers within the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key, and Florida Fish and Wildlife’s hotline is routed to the mainland and does not specifically pertain to Key deer. That means too much time can go by before a federal or state wildlife officer responds to situations like this.

While the Save our Key Deer group “does not condone this action due to potential public safety issues, it understands what led up to it,” Preziosi said. “The present lack of interest and resources for the maintenance of the endangered Key deer is in stark contrast to past management practices and is not only detrimental to the deer but also builds ever-increasing animosity between the management agencies and residents of the Keys that interact with the animals on a daily basis.

“For both deer and human reasons,” she said, “this situation needs to change.”

This story was originally published December 20, 2022 12:13 PM.

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David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, DC He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.