Of Gopher Tortoises & Torture

On July 17th, two teenage girls released a couple of videos on YouTube of them actively trying to set a state and federally protected Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) on fire using rubbing alcohol. When that didn’t provide them the results they desired, they resorted to throwing it out in the middle of the street and then later, stomping it to death. Cruel treatment of reptiles is far from being unheard of. Most commonly, snakes are subjects of malicious intent by people for a myriad of reasons. Most people don’t have a fear of turtles and tortoises, thus they are spared more often the inhumane treatment often imposed upon snakes. However, in this particular case, two teenagers had taken in a baby gopher tortoise as a “pet” (which in itself is illegal), but when they got bored…they decided to torture this innocent creature to death by the means stated above.

It makes you wonder just how disturbed a person would have to be in order to perform such actions against an innocent creature.

A creature that poses zero harm to people, is quite secretive in nature, and does a great service to a great many other species that support a healthy ecosystem. For those unfamiliar, the Gopher tortoise while not necessarily protected due to having “low” (although, they are dropping) numbers, it has more to do with the fact that their habitat is being lost at rapid rate. Gopher tortoises dig deep burrows. These burrows not only offer them shelter and protection from predators and the elements, but it affords the same to over 300 other species of wildlife. As habitat loss becomes more and more concerning, gopher tortoise burrows become more and more important. 

While it shouldn’t matter whether the animal was a protected species or not, and while it may not have even made a difference to these two teenage girls had they even known, it does demonstrate the vast disconnect between people and wildlife and why it is important for educators to reach out and connect people with wildlife at an early age. Hopefully that connection and understanding from that moment in their lives will help pave a way for a future of respect and admiration.

While it is easy for us to dwell on the behaviors of these two teenagers, we cannot neglect the positive actions of another. “Ash”, a 16-year-old out of Orange Park, FL were Facebook friends with one of the girls, when he saw them post the videos of their actions. He quickly saved the videos so that they could be distributed to Florida Wildlife Commission Law Enforcement and enable the two teenagers to be caught. Ash is an animal lover who has a pet a Florida yellow-bellied slider that was purchased for him when he was kindergarten.  His connection to his pet turtle immediately enabled him to be sympathetic to the torment that the gopher tortoise was enduring in those videos. He knew he had to do something and he stepped up to the plate as a responsible young man. In addition to that, he has opened a GoFundMe account to raise funds for the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, to help in turtle and tortoise conservation and awareness.

Our early connection to animals in the right manner enables us to understand, accept and admire various species across the globe. It helps pave the way for our understanding of ecology and conservation. It enables us to understand animal psychology to a greater depth and attaches us emotionally to these magnificent creatures so that we can try harder to protect them. Roaming Reptiles of Central Florida strives to do our part to help people build that connection with these animals. We want for people to explore, ask questions, and hopefully understand the value that these animals have in our lives, even for those who do not directly interact with them on a day-to-day basis.  Reptiles are sentient beings. They feel pain. They feel fear. While many don’t think that they are very intelligent, those of us who interact with them on a regular basis have come to learn just how intelligent these animals actually are.  It is for this reason that we stand up for these animals that are unable to stand up for themselves. It is for this reason that we continue to fight to help others understand and appreciate these animals and hope to provide resources which will enable others to find answers to conflicts with wildlife that doesn’t consist of killing them needlessly and inhumanely.

Please help us to fight for what’s right. Whatever age you are, be that 16-year-old that stood up for an animal that needed someone to speak up for them. It’s too late for this one gopher tortoise, but it’s not too late for the next. Work together to educate yourselves and others so that treatment of animals in inhumane manners can be eradicated and we can begin to build a world where wildlife and humanity works together.

Read more of Chris’ work in our Conscious Keeper section

Here’s the most recent update as of 7/26/14 via James Tintle of Tremendous Tricolors

Gopher Tortoise Update