Florida agriculture officials are working to stop the spread of deadly screw worms, which claimed about 30 deer in the Keys over the last two weeks. Screw worm flies lay eggs near open wounds, and the larvae feed on living flesh.
The parasites once cost the livestock industry millions each year, but there hadn't been an infestation of screw worms in the U.S. in over 30 years. That is, until the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that they were killing the small Key deer, found only in the Florida Keys.
"I really worry about those Key deer, and I worry about everybody else's pets down there," said Jim Strickland, a past president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association.
In addition to the 30 or so deer that were either found dead or euthanized over the last two weeks, National Key Deer Refuge records indicate that at least another deer deaths over the summer were caused by the screw worm parasite.
Collier County's Domestic Animal Services officials said they were not concerned about screw worms affecting pets in the county, just north of the Keys' Monroe County, unless the parasites show signs of moving farther north.
Strickland said that if an infected animal is treated in time, screw worms aren't necessarily fatal.
"Are we worried?" he asked. "Yes. Do we have confidence in the technology that is available to control this? Absolutely."
Agriculture officials say they are releasing millions of sterilized screw worm flies to mate with female screw worm flies in the Keys, so that any eggs produced won't hatch. They say that the sterilized insects are effective enough that pesticides won't be necessary.