They stand 4 feet tall, sport dark brown coats and speak in high-pitched barks and whistles. Close in size to German shepherds, the 100 sika deer in Bruce Morgan's back yard seem strange and out of place.
Which is not surprising: Their native habitat is thousands of miles away, on a Japanese island chain called the Ryukyu Islands. A couple of hundred Ryukyu sika remain there, about 300 live in Washington, and experts think that is all that's left of the subspecies.
For more than a century, Ryukyu deer have been shipped, swapped, sold and hunted in all manner of places: the estate of a deer-loving duke north of London, an exotic game ranch in Texas, an island in the San Juans and, for more than 20 years, on the private Eastside reserve of Morgan, a former Newcastle city councilman.
Soon, a third of Morgan's herd will move to San Diego, where they'll start a new life in the world-renowned Wild Animal Park.
In the 1890s, some of these deer were taken from Japan to the rolling pastures of Woburn Abbey, the 100-room ancestral home of the dukes of Bedford.
Like many Victorian gentlemen, the 11th Duke was an avid animal collector and had a particular yen for deer. In addition to Ryukyus and other subspecies of Japanese sika, he imported chestnut-colored deer from Formosa, hefty roe deer from Siberia and the Chinese Pere David deer, which he is said to have saved from extinction.
In later years, deer from the duke's estate - now open to the public and still harboring one of the world's largest deer collections - were sold to zoos. One British zoo sold some to a Texas trophy-hunting business.
When the Y.O. Ranch got into the exotic-animal business in the 1950s, sika deer were among its first animals. The 40,000-acre spread near Kerrville, not far from San Antonio, was one of the first "Texotics" - Texas ranches where people pay thousands of dollars to hunt exotic animals held in captivity.
Today the Japanese sika on the ranch fetch about $1,500. But because of interbreeding, none of them is pure-bred Ryukyu, says Gus Schreiner, a Y.O. spokesman and great-grandson of the ranch founder.
Y.O. ranchers sold Ryukyu sika in the late 1960s to three Seattle brothers. Gene, Chris and Bert Klineburger led big-game trips in Africa, Asia and Antarctica.
Locally famous for their Capitol Hill taxidermy shop, the brothers regularly threw "Klineburger Safari Dinners," where guests supped on cougar salami, pickled beaver tail and zebra. When the king and queen of Nepal visited Seattle, the Klineburgers took them to the Space Needle.
The brothers bought Spieden Island in the San Juans in 1969 for $675,000. They stocked it with Barbary sheep, Corsican goats, Indian jungle fowl and about a dozen sika deer. Chartered barges took hunters to "Safari Island."
The deer, which carried a trophy fee of $375, weren't as popular as "big prizes" like the $700 Indian blackbuck, Gene Klineburger says.
But even those didn't bring in as much money as the brothers hoped: Safari Island was a flop, in part because of negative press. A CBS documentary, anchored by Walter Cronkite and showing a Mouflon ram unloaded from a ship and shot immediately, was completely untrue, Klineburger says.
Regardless, following the broadcast, state lawmakers introduced several measures to regulate exotic-animal businesses. In 1971, the Klineburgers announced Safari Island was for sale.
The Klineburgers did with the animals what made the best business sense - left them on the island. Future investors hoped to make Spieden a lucrative tourist attraction.
That never really happened, though they did make some money selling animals to collectors like Bruce Morgan. He bought about 30 Ryukyus, and some remained on the island. Today, more than 200 are living there, he says.
Morgan, a Tukwila native, started raising pheasants in the fifth grade and says he has been an exotic-animal lover ever since. He doesn't hunt the Ryukyu deer - or the Mouflon sheep, African crowned cranes and European white storks that roam through his woodsy, 20-acre backyard reserve.
He has nothing against hunting, however, and says it can be helpful in maintaining populations. When the state tried to impose a ban on importing and breeding nonnative animals, Morgan joined with commercial venison ranchers in opposing it.
William Dwyer, the U.S. District judge known for his 1991 ruling protecting the northern spotted owl, lifted the ban, allowing the Ryukyus to mate again.
Now, the deer spend their days "grazing, chewing cud, looking around and being happy," says Morgan, a councilman until last year.
Few people see the deer in the gated Cougar Mountain-area reserve, which is surrounded by 10-foot barbed-wire fences. That will change in August or September, when about 30 are shipped off to the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
There they'll live among 370 animal species, many of them endangered like the Ryukyu. Morgan hopes that moving part of the herd will help restore the subspecies. The San Diego Park is renowned for successful breeding of endangered populations.
The park groups compatible animals from similar environments in enclosures of up to 150 acres. These areas are designed after animals' native habitat, so the deer may soon roam over grasslands and munch on leaves, very much like those in the Ryukyu Islands.
Janet Burkitt's phone message number is 206-515-5689. Her e-mail address is: email@example.com