Every October through January, lovesick deer interfere with traffic around East Lake High School.
Mating season, known to hunters as "the rut," makes normally cautious bucks ignore honking horns and headlights as they pursue does in heat onto student driver-dominated Silver Eagle Drive and nearby roads.
It often ends in tragedy: Animals are hit by cars and crippled or killed. Drivers are injured, cars totaled.
So last year, local Audubon Society members teamed with county officials to reduce wrecks with new, bright yellow, orange-flagged "Deer Crossing" signs and electronic message boards warning drivers to watch for deer. The animals are plentiful in East Lake, thanks to John Chesnut Park and the 8,000-acre Brooker Creek Preserve.
The slowly spreading project continued Monday as workers planted two more warning signs near the high school entrance and on East Lake Road.
Parents are relieved.
"You've got all these kids every day just rushing to get out of school," said Lorrie Yasso, 55, as she picked up her daughter, Kayla, from class on Monday. "And deer are popping up all the time, not just in the morning."
The signs promote safety, Yasso said. Kids blasting Justin Bieber may be more likely to notice deer leaping into turn lanes if they have seen the signs.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who listened to the public complaints at a town hall meeting last October, added two large electronic signs facing northbound and southbound traffic on East Lake Road for mating season. Since then, he said, weeks may pass without deer collisions.
"We're really just trying to generate awareness and heightened caution on the motorists' part," Gualtieri said. "We want people to be constantly scanning from side to side. Deer just dart out."
Even tall fences, he said, can't stop deer from bounding from one patch of woods to another. But drivers, who average 60 mph on East Lake Road, can slow down and look around.
"It makes a huge difference," he said. "They're better prepared."
Before the new warnings were installed, Audubon member and East Lake resident Ronda Musca saw at least 10 deer struck by cars. This year, she's seen one.
"When you sit behind the overhead sign by John Chesnut Park," she said, "you see drivers suddenly hit the brakes."
It's a relief, she said, because seeing deer with broken legs, looking into their frightened eyes, knowing sheriff's deputies must euthanize them, is heart-wrenching.
"The deer aren't going anywhere, so we've got to adapt and learn how to live with them," Musca said. "This is a step in the right direction."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.