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Finally, on January 16, a third neighbor was driving at night near 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 that 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 that 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."
The spear could be the best clue yet. Berger asked that it not be described in this article 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 email from someone named "Jason Martin" or "Fat Bingo" arrived in the refuge's general email 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 email 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 email'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 backyards, 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.
Although 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."