Gopherus polyphemus, the Gopher tortoise, photographed in Volusia county, Florida (23 May 2014).
Originally, this post was slotted to feature a rather rowdy and rambunctious encounter with a Yellow rat snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) and a Cuban treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis) in Mount Dora, Florida. As Wednesday 16 July trudged ever-onward, however, an incredibly horrific and offensive story emerged from Orange Park, Florida and spread its tendrils across social media and the internet. This is a long post, and I apologize for that, but it’s weighing very heavily on my heart.
Truly, the story took like brushfire in certain channels of social media, evoking harsh and dramatic calls of violence against two young students at Ridgeview High School who had –for reasons utterly beyond my comprehension– decided it would be awesome to record themselves torturing and killing a young Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) and to then post those videos on Facebook. I saw those videos. Both of them. And they were truly horrific for many reasons.
First, what are we talking about here? The Gopher tortoise is a federally protected species of great ecological importance in the American southeast (most notably in Florida). As their common name suggests, Gopher tortoises dig large burrows in dry, xeric soil. As noted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, approximately 350 other species utilize these burrow systems for their own self-preservation and survival. Being such a keystone species in Florida’s web of ecological complexity, the conservation and protection of the Gopher tortoise isn’t just a “feel good” thing to do… It’s important. It’s very important, and their numbers have already been decimated due to excessive habitat destruction, busy roads, and reckless land development. Thus, it is federally illegal to personally harass, harm, maim, or destroy both Gopher tortoises and/or their burrows.
So, with that in mind, here begins the story of our two teenagers in Orange Park, Florida. You can read the more-journalistic and concise details here, but the story begins with two young women, teenagers, finding a Gopher tortoise in the woods and deciding to keep it. I saw an image of the tortoise in what looked to be a small goldfish-looking bowl. This pretty much signifies the teenage women didn’t understand what the heck they were dealing with. This wasn’t an aquatic turtle. This was a terrestrial Gopher tortoise, and a federally-protected one at that. And a juvenile to boot.
Later, they decided to take the young tortoise outside and set it on fire. They also decided to video record the event. Their first video clip (which they uploaded themselves out of pride, it seems) plays like this: The young women laugh hysterically as they douse the juvenile tortoise with some kind of fuel and then light it on fire. The tortoise runs in a circle, not sure how to escape the searing heat. The fire soon extinguishes. Unsatisfied, the young women then try to light a stick on fire and jab it at the tortoise’s face. At this point, the tortoise has curled into its shell as much as it can; it does not know what to do. Next, the young women decide to pick up the turtle, carry it to the street, and to then throw it long-distance like a baseball. Repeatedly. The video is extremely graphic. More disturbing is that these two young women are laughing throughout the whole event. They were positively and absolutely delighted to be torturing this young tortoise. This was a good time in Orange Park, Florida, YOLO.
Now comes the second video. Yes, there’s another video. It’s shorter and easier to describe, though: The young women record themselves forcibly pounding down on the tortoise with a Nike-sandaled foot, shattering the carapace (shell) until its inner organs begin to leak out. “His heart came out with a bunch of grass,” one of the young women notes with elation. The video ends with a mutilated, shattered, and dead Gopher tortoise and two joyous, giggling, and seemingly satisfied Orange Park teenagers.
These videos broke and continue to break my heart. I can’t stop thinking about them, painting them over and over again in the canvas of my mind. Such cruelty. Such inhumanity.
In August of 2012, I pondered over the pointless blood-lust and violence against turtles (and wildlife more generally) on Dust Tracks. In that post I wrote,
…it feels like we’re sliding down, down, down the scale of humaneness. So many of us seem to be more and more like children in love with cruelty . . . In central Florida, I hope that’s not the case. I hope people are becoming more attuned to the magnificence that surrounds them — a magnificent ocean of bio- and eco-diversity that should be respected, not mocked and slaughtered pointlessly. Heaven knows there’s enough inhumanity elsewhere in the country to go around… And in America, inhumanity is like a cold. It catches and spreads through our ranks. Twitter and Facebook no doubt help the spread, as do the countless discussion boards and comments sections spread all across the web.
Here I am, nearly two years later, and that hope is still flickering, unsure of itself, strained and challenged.
Still, despite the rancid lack of humaneness held by so many cruel and violent people around me, or perhaps more so because of it, my wife and I have tried very, very hard to instill a sense of humaneness in our daughter. We want her to look at the world not only with wonder and awe, but also with respect and kindness, coupled with imagination and curiosity. We want her to understand that she’s a part of something much bigger than herself — something much bigger than all of us. She’s a part of the natural world, and nature is nothing short of divine in its beauty, complexity, and harmony. It is not something to be recklessly, aimlessly, and pointlessly raped and abused with a strange cacophony of violence and exultation. It is something to be cherished and nurtured, something to be admired and honored. To disrespect nature, to embrace violence against nature, is to disrespect one’s very self and to commit violence against one’s own identity as a living participant in the natural world. Violence from rage and violence from joy rarely reap what we wish for: Justice. It just sows more violence.
And that brings us to the next stage of the social media story. One of the women’s classmates was horrified by the videos. This student downloaded the videos from Facebook and shared them independently. The story was picked up by a group in Nevada and eventually broke nationally.
As people became aware of these videos, they began to go after the young women on social media. On Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, on Tumblr, they became the targets of an understandably upset and pissed off group of people, the often-mocked “Animal Lovers” (of which I am a proud member). It didn’t take long for the blood to permeate the water, stirring up a kind of feeding frenzy of vitriol. Despite a half-assed pseudo-apology from one of the young women, a tsunami of calls for violence against these women began to crash across the shores of the internet. Brutal name calling, harsh descriptions of personal assault, and vindictive incantations of what should physically be done to these women and their body parts poured over social media. It was ugly. Very ugly. Their names were made public. Some folks even poured through google maps to figure out exactly where they were. Addresses were then posted. Of course, it didn’t take long for the women to go off-radar.
It also didn’t take long for myFWC to publicly respond on Facebook:
Under Investigation: We have received multiple complaints about the videos posted to Facebook last evening showing the killing of a small gopher tortoise. Our officers are investigating the case and are presently working with the State Attorney’s Office to determine what charges may be filed. Please keep alerting us with your tips. Post here, private message, and call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@Myfwc.com.
Of all of this –this nightmare of a story– this is the one bright spot. Through social media, the Florida Wildlife Commission was made aware of this horrific crime by way of an avalanche of calls and emails from concerned people, and legal action was set into motion. As for the calls for violence against these women across social media, though I can certainly understand the anger, I simply cannot understand the violent rhetoric. These weren’t just calls for legal justice. These were calls for violent assault. True, the tortoise was innocent and the women were very much, for lack of a better term, evil in their clearly deliberate actions… but still… Can we simply respond to unwarranted violence with calls for lawless violence? I’m just not one for eye-for-an-eye justice. I loathe these women’s actions with a searing intensity, but I do not wish them physical harm. They’ve hurt their own futures well enough, and the law will hopefully take care of the rest. I truly do wish for them the full weight of state and federal law, but inciting violence against them outside of law doesn’t really do anything to help anything. It simply perpetuates inhumanness, the very same fuel that feeds such violence.
I suppose there’s a lot we could learn from Gopher tortoises, actually… or at least be reminded of. They’re extremely efficient, deeply rational organisms. They don’t waste their time and energy on fruitless assaults upon others. They don’t torture, and they don’t tease. They just go about the business of scratching out a living in this difficult and tumultuous mortal coil. This is certainly true of the Gopher tortoise, one of the most benign and calm of Florida’s many native reptile species.
Further, the Gopher tortoise reminds me of the interconnectivity of life in certain habitats and ecosystems. The Gopher tortoise digs burrows for survival, for example, and hundreds of other organisms then depend on these burrows for their own survival. The actions of these Gopher tortoises directly impact the lives of other organisms. Creatures, be they tortoises or people, simply do not live in vacuums. Our actions have direct, measurable (and certainly immeasurable) impacts on those around us. We are all connected. Our actions have consequences. In the case of humanity, the language we use to express ourselves also carries consequences. Let’s ease up on the violent rhetoric. Let’s not condemn physical violence while embracing verbal violence.
If you’d like to learn more about Gopher tortoises and their conservation, the Gopher Tortoise Council is a fine place to start, as is myFWC’s Gopher tortoise profile page. If you live in the Gopher tortoise’s range, please do what you can to help this species survive beneath the collective weight of habitat loss and inhumane acts of violence. Please try to respect their space while fostering and nurturing their conservation. Whenever I have friends in state, I love to show them a Gopher tortoise doing its thing whenever possible. To me, personally, the Gopher tortoise is as intertwined in my sense of Florida as Spanish moss, the Manatee, and the American alligator. I love showing them off whenever I have visitors. I can’t imagine a Florida without them.
And so I’m going to try to hang on to my ever-challenged sense of hope. I know there’s a lot of ignorance out there, and I know that violence and cruelty can seem as American as apple pie these days… Still, I’m going to choose to live my life in a way that tries to foster productive conservation and respect for the world around me. Though I’ve felt this way most of my life (with thanks to my parents), this conviction of hope has become more entrenched since my daughter joined the fray, despite the growing challenges. I want her to grow up in a world informed and magnified by scientific complexity and naturalist beauty. I want her to marvel in awe at how lucky she is to share this world, this life, her life, with so many wonderfully adapted organisms and ecosystems. This is not a world to torture and kill aimlessly. This is a world to protect and nourish.
Next on Dust Tracks: As promised, the Yellow rat snake and Cuban treefrog epic!