EAST LAKE — The buck stopped here.
As he was ringing bells for the Salvation Army outside a Publix on Wednesday, Joel Sheets noticed a deer coming his way.
"He must've activated the motion detector, because the outer door opened and he went right through," he said.
And into a crowd of afternoon shoppers dashing around the Boot Ranch Publix near Palm Harbor to get last-minute groceries for the holiday.
The deer, a male of about 150 pounds, ran smack-dab into a pet supply display about 1:30 p.m. Employees then apprehended it.
"A lady walked into his path and he veered to the right, just past the checkout lines," Sheets said. "I guess that's when some of the store workers tackled him."
Quick-thinking Publix employees wrangled the animal to the floor, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. When deputies arrived, they blindfolded the deer to keep it quiet.
And a nearby business called an animal rescuer.
The deer, which likely came from the Eastlake Woodlands subdivision, had been hit by a car not far from the shopping plaza, said Rick Chaboudy, executive director of the Suncoast Animal League, a nonprofit animal rescue organization called to help.
Besides a concussion, the deer was not injured.
"This is mating season, therefore the deer are kind of crazy," Chaboudy said. "They don't have too much sense about them."
Chaboudy and his assistant, veterinary technician Erica Hinz, took the deer to Brooker Creek Preserve and released him.
"Deer do not do well in captivity," Chaboudy said. "One of the best things you can do is get them back in their natural environment."
Before the deer went into Publix, the staff at My Pet Animal Hospital several doors down saw it "looking frantic" in the shopping complex, which was bustling two days before Christmas, said veterinary technician Michelle Williams.
Williams said the animal at first was coming toward her business from the direction of the Publix. Vet staffers hoped to coax it into the office until help could arrive.
"He almost ran in our door, but there was a guy coming down from the Target and I think that kind of spooked him," she said.
That's when the animal turned around and headed back toward the Publix.
On the way, he ran past a jewelry store, a nail salon and a Little Caesar's Pizza, bouncing off store windows and doors.
Mike Law, who works at a shop in the complex, said a loud "boom, boom" drew his attention to the window.
"I looked up and a deer ran right past me. At first I thought it was a great Dane," Law said. "It was crazy."
Sheets said the incident was the talk of the day among shoppers.
Publix customers burst into applause when the animal was lifted up and carried out of the store.
Rita Farlow can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.