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Creature Feature: The Tortoise and the Scare

In a pioneering alliance, The Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County partnered to save dozens of Florida’s threatened gopher tortoises from cruel fates—and in the process effected groundbreaking change in state wildlife policy

In a pioneering alliance, The Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County partnered to save dozens of Florida’s threatened gopher tortoises from cruel fates—and in the process effected groundbreaking change in state wildlife policy

Vero Beach animal control officer Bruce Dangerfield was part of the community rescue effort coordinated by the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County. CARISSA KENT
The Creature:
The gopher tortoise is a burrowing reptile located only in the southeastern United States. The animal is protected as a “species of special concern” in Florida; it is a second-degree misdemeanor to kill gopher tortoises without a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The FWC recently voted to change the species’ status to “threatened,” which will afford the tortoises greater protection when the change becomes official with the approval of a new management plan, expected in June.

The Problem:
When executive director Joan Carlson saw bulldozers clearing land across the street from her shelter at the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County (HSVB), she became concerned. The woodlands, she suspected, were home to gopher tortoises. A call to the developer elevated Carlson’s concern to alarm when she discovered that an “incidental take” state permit had relieved the company of any responsibility to the animals. The permit would even allow the burrowing creatures to be crushed under bulldozers or buried alive. Because of their slow metabolism, the entombed tortoises could suffer underground for months before dying of dehydration, starvation, or asphyxiation.

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