Her Narrow Escape: On Tuesday 8th November 2016, while our country was holding national elections, Gopher Tortoise #1721 was grazing along the entrance drive to Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida. She was sporting a painted “1721” on her shell, for easy observation, and also had a small transmitter glued to her shell—so Archbold scientists could monitor her whereabouts.
She is at least 45 years old and has been living in this part of the Station for decades. In the past 5 years, we have recorded 23 observations of her grazing along the driveway, or in a few cases, scuffling with her apparent rival, a similar-sized female #795. As one of the few surviving tortoises marked by Archbold scientists in the 1980s, #1721 is a valuable study animal and beloved by visiting children and adults alike.
Around midday on that Tuesday a couple drove into Archbold in a silver Nissan SUV. Purportedly looking to collect plants, they thought the Station might be a nursery (it isn’t). Passing by #1721, who was moving at tortoise-speed along the grass verge, the man said “I’m going to get that on the way back.” Sure enough, on their way out, he pulled over, grabbed #1721, and bundled her into the back of the vehicle, announcing “we are going to eat it for dinner.”
At a gas station a few miles north of Archbold, he stopped and used his machete to pry off part of #1721’s radio transmitter, fearing the device could be used to track her (and him).
Archbold staff did not know that #1721 was speeding away to a terrible end in a vehicle being driven by a man aptly named Mr. Butcher.
A few hours later, fate and fortune intervened. More than 100 miles from Archbold, in a Race Trac parking lot in Brevard County, Florida Highway Patrol responded to a 911 call from a woman in a vehicle being threatened by her partner. His name—Mr. Butcher. The woman immediately informed the trooper that there was a tortoise in the back of the vehicle, and that “he (Mr. Butcher) was going to kill it, then eat it.” She thought this was wrong. Already en route to assist with the domestic dispute, an Investigator from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) heard over his radio that a tortoise was also involved. Sure enough when he arrived and searched the back of the SUV, he found #1721 scrabbling around among assorted plants. Her transmitter was cut in half, but otherwise she appeared to be fine.
Soon thereafter, a FWC biologist in West Palm Beach called Dr. Betsie Rothermel, who is in charge of tortoise research at the Station. Completely shocked at the news, Betsie confirmed that Archbold has a tortoise called #1721 and sent them a recent photo. Yes, on this of all days, the tortoise had a valid photo ID!
The sweet, 3-year-old daughter of the FWC Investigator became very, very worried upon hearing of this incident from her father. She wrote a letter to #1721’s mommy, so she would know that “the tortoise was saved from the bad man by her daddy, and that she would take care of her.” She picked grass, so #1721 wouldn’t go hungry and she sang a lullaby (Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) to help her fall asleep. She checked on her in the morning to make sure she was okay. Her father told us, “She seems honestly concerned for the tortoise and has been asking about it since that day. She wanted to make sure I got her letter to the scientists to give to the tortoise’s mother.”
To be truthful, we don’t know if #1721’s mommy is still around. Our ongoing research using genetic techniques may eventually answer that question. But who would let this technical detail spoil a 3-year-old’s caring thoughts?
Forty-eight hours after the abduction, in a parking lot rendezvous, the FWC biologist staff handed #1721 over to Archbold staff. After making sure #1721 was hydrated and healthy, Betsie returned her to her burrow. Since then, we have spotted her out grazing along the drive again. She even has a new suitor, young male tortoise #1472!
Mr. Butcher claimed that the tortoise had been hit by a car and that he was rescuing it, to take it to a wildlife rehabilitator. His story rang false given the lack of serious injury to the tortoise, the damning statements of his companion, and his own words to law enforcement that “they used to eat them back in the day.” In addition to other serious charges, Mr. Butcher was charged with possession of a Gopher Tortoise, a state-threatened species.
Archbold will continue to welcome the public to our Learning Center and trails, but our trust can be eroded by people like him and incidents like this. Sadly, visitors can now expect more monitoring cameras along our drive.
We are left wondering how a visitor could possibly think that it is okay to steal a Gopher Tortoise from a scientific research center, tagged and obviously part of a study, and head off home to eat her? In the days when Gopher Tortoises were common and tortoise habitat was widespread, tortoises were valued as food. But now tortoise numbers have dwindled precipitously. They are long-lived, slow-growing animals whose numbers have been drastically depleted by early hunting, massive loss of habitat, and vehicle-related mortality. Tortoises desperately need our help and protection.
Archbold salutes the FWC Investigator and we take solace in his wonderful message “The silver lining in the whole incident is that it seems to have sparked an interest/love in the tortoises for my daughter. Thanks for all you do and keep up the good fight! Please let me know if there is anything I can help you with!” We have extended a warm invitation to him and his family to visit and meet some of our charismatic tortoises.
If you were upset to read this story, and relieved at the happy ending, please consider a gift to help Archbold continue our vital work to save the Gopher Tortoise in Florida. Current studies are examining: how long Gopher Tortoises live and continue to breed; how genetic relatedness and other factors influence their social interactions, including choice of mates; and, how can we best restore habitat to increase their populations. All Gopher Tortoise research at Archbold is conducted under a permit from FWC.
Please click here to make a donation to Archbold. If you would like your gift to go directly toward our research on Gopher Tortoises please designate your gift for research and write in the Tribute Gift box that it is in honor of Tortoise 1721.
Text by Dr. Hilary Swain, Archbold Biological Station Executive Director
#TheRealFlorida #KeepFLWild #GopherTortoise #FWC #OhFlorida
The story continues in Part II: Reflections on #1721’s Ordeal
Copyright Archbold Biological Station, 2016
Footnote: This blog is longer and more detailed than our usual format. We posted an extended blog article to make sure we had a public place to share this important story.
Learn more about Archbold’s herpetology work on our website here
Learn about Gopher Tortoises from the Gopher Tortoise Council here