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Wildlife officers look for answers in gopher tortoise deaths while reward money piles up

  • The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is investigating the deaths of two tortoises that were beaten and their shells broken in Manatee County.
  • “Gopher tortoises are actually some of the most defenseless creatures we have in Florida,” said Elise Bennett, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in St. Petersburg.
  • Gopher tortoise populations have been dwindling for years, Bennett said, largely due to human development in their preferred habitats.
  • This isn’t the first time gopher tortoises have suffered at human hands in Florida in the past few years.
  • After a rash of incidents where animals, including gopher tortoises, were found covered in paint, in August the commission asked the public to stop catching and painting them.

The blood had already pooled when the bodies were found, bashed and beaten. One was dead. The other was still gasping, but it was too late.

@Defenders: Wildlife officers look for answers in gopher tortoise deaths while reward money piles up: via @TB_Times

The blood had already pooled when the bodies were found, bashed and beaten. One was dead. The other was still gasping, but it was too late.

Two gopher tortoises were discovered June 8, their shells crushed and cracked, on the side of a bike path in Manatee County. The surviving tortoise was taken to an animal hospital, where it later died. The incident was first reported by YourObserver.com, the website for a chain of weekly newspapers.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Florida wildlife officials: Please stop painting the animals.

Florida lists gopher tortoises as threatened species, and they and their burrows are protected by state law. No arrests have been made in their deaths, but several parties have offered reward money to identify whoever killed them.

“Gopher tortoises are actually some of the most defenseless creatures we have in Florida,” said Elise Bennett, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in St. Petersburg. “It’s atrocious that someone would target them.”

The organization has offered a $5,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest or arrests in this case.

“We’d like to see whoever did this brought to justice,” Bennett said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating the tortoise deaths but said Tuesday there was no progress to report.

The tortoises were found by a young boy riding his bike through a trail, according to YourObserver.com. It gave this account of how the tortoises were found:

The boy who first discovered them texted one of his friends, asking her to “Come look at the turtles.”

When the girl arrived with her father, they rushed the injured tortoise to Bayshore Animal Hospital in Bradenton for emergency medical treatment before it died. Later, another man who learned about the incident from his wife took a shovel out to the woods and buried the other tortoise.

FWC spokesman Gary Morse said the veterinarian who treated one of the gopher tortoises reported that its injuries appeared to be old. The other tortoise could not be examined because it had already been buried.

The gopher tortoises were known to many in the community who frequented the bike path. At least three people have offered their own reward, totaling $1,100, via the neighborhood forum nextdoor.com.

Gopher tortoise populations have been dwindling for years, Bennett said, largely due to human development in their preferred habitats. The animals like to burrow in sandy soil to stay safe. But over the past 100 years, roughly 97 percent of their habitat has been lost to human construction, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Development is causing this widespread loss,” Bennett said. “But it’s also putting the tortoises in direct contact with people who might want to hurt them.”

The declining gopher tortoise population means that each one is important to the species’ future. For every 100 eggs a female tortoise lays, only a few will live to adulthood. The rest will be broken, eaten by other animals or destroyed by the elements.

“When you take out an adult tortoise, you’re taking out hundreds of potential eggs and a few potential future tortoises and that can lead to population crashes,” Bennett said.

This isn’t the first time gopher tortoises have suffered at human hands in Florida in the past few years. After a rash of incidents where animals, including gopher tortoises, were found covered in paint, in August the commission asked the public to stop catching and painting them. In 2014, two teenage girls in Orange Park posted a cellphone video of themselves online, stomping on a tortoise and torturing it.

“Let’s light his head on fire,” one girl said in the video, laughing. “Burn, baby, burn baby,” said the other.

In December 2016, a man in Venus took a tortoise that had wandered away from its burrow at a research center and tried to take it home to eat for dinner. Luckily, the animal had a tracking device and was quickly returned to researchers.

Wildlife officers look for answers in gopher tortoise deaths while reward money piles up

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