MARATHON, FLA. (WSVN) - Volunteers from the Key Deer Sanctuary are working to save the deer from a dangerous flesh-eating parasite called screw worms.
There are less than 1,000 Key Deer left in the Florida Keys, and more than 100 have died after being infected by screw worms.
“We’re seeing these pretty grotesque-like wounds around the head,” said Dr. Doug Mader of the Marathon Veterinary Hospital.
The worms, which are the larvae of the screw fly, lay their eggs in the wounds of warm-blooded animals. Less than an inch long, they can kill a deer in a matter of days.
“It’s truly devastating,” said Beth Ramsay Vickrey. “The Key Deer are our little treasure, and people are very protective of them.”
Until recently, the biggest threat to the dog-sized deer was traffic on Big Pine Key and other nearby islands. However, the screw worms, which screw their way into healthy tissue and bone, have killed more deer in a few weeks than cars kill in a year.
“They are making every effort they can to not only prevent the disease in deer down the road and also if there is any deer that could be potentially treated to treat those,” Mader said, “but so far, most of the deer that we’re finding are so far gone that they’re not treatable.”
Because of situations like this, Key Deer Sanctuary officers are taking the drastic step of trying to treat healthy deer with drugs known to prevent screw worm infections in other animals.
“It’s an insecticide similar to dog heart worm medication,” said Park Ranger Kristie Killam.
It’s never been tried in wild animals, but with 10 percent of the population already killed by the screw worms, they are desperate to stop the infections.
Volunteers are being trained to take out treat packages, get the deer feeding on fruits and vegetables and then slip them a piece of bread soaked with the medication.
“Some medicated for yearlings and fawn sizes, some medicated for adults,” Killiam said.
The hope is to stop the spread and save one of the most unique animals in the Keys.
“With this many people coming together, you have to believe it’s going to be OK,” said Vickrey.
They’re also trying to kill off the screw flies by releasing sterile male flies which can’t reproduce, but that process could take six months or more.
Copyright 2017 Sunbeam Television Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.