Gopher-grabber nearly derailed science experiment for dinner

The animal, part of a longtime experiment, almost became supper.
Biologists at Archbold Biological Station in Central Florida have been following the movements of gopher tortoise No. 1721 since the 1980s and were very happy to get the animal back home. Courtesy of Archbold Biological Station
Biologists at Archbold Biological Station in Central Florida have been following the movements of gopher tortoise No. 1721 since the 1980s and were very happy to get the animal back home.Courtesy of Archbold Biological Station
Published December 15 2016
Updated December 15 2016

Only in Florida could a long-term science project nearly get derailed by someone's dinner plans.

It started when a couple driving through Central Florida last month made a mistake. They drove into the Archbold Biological Station in Venus because they thought they could buy plants there. It's not a nursery, though. It's a research facility.

As they cruised along in a silver Nissan Murano, the driver noticed something by the roadside — a gopher tortoise nearly a foot long. On its shell was painted "1721" in white numbers 2 inches high. A radio transmitter had been glued on there, too.

"I'm going to get that on the way back," the driver, a 40-year-old man from Port Orange, said. According to his passenger, he had plans for the tortoise: "We are going to eat it for dinner."

Sure enough, while driving back out of Archbold, the driver stopped, hopped out, grabbed the tortoise and wrestled it into the Murano's hatchback.

At some point, someone used a long blade like a machete to chop the radio transmitter off the shell.

As the couple cruised east toward home, though, they got into an argument. The passenger called 911 on her cellphone to report that the driver had hit her. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled the Nissan over at a RaceTrac gas station in Palm Bay.

That's when the passenger, Pamela Hampton, informed the trooper that they had a live tortoise in the back. The trooper called in a state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer.

The wildlife officer, Joshua Horst, questioned the Murano's driver. The man said he'd seen another car hit the tortoise and had picked up the injured animal out of compassion. He planned to take it to a neighbor in Port Orange who is a wildlife rehabilitation expert. He said he had no idea what happened to its tracking device.

"He admitted making a comment that 'they used to eat them back in the day,' " Horst wrote in his report. (During the Great Depression, hungry Floridians ate gopher tortoises, which they dubbed "Hoover chickens," after President Herbert Hoover's promise of a chicken in every pot.)

Horst examined the abducted animal and found "no scrapes, fractures or drag marks" showing it had been run over. The only mark on its shell was a "straight slice/cut" about an inch from where the tracking device had been, suggesting the first swing of the blade had missed the target.

Horst handed the driver a citation for illegal possession of a gopher tortoise, which is classified as a threatened species in Florida. The tortoise, a female, was handed back over to the biologists at Archbold, who hadn't realized it was gone, much less that it was traveling faster than any other tortoise in Florida. At best they check the tortoises' radio signals every couple of weeks, explained biologist Betsie Rothermel.

Rothermel said Wednesday that they returned 1721 to its burrow, where it has gone back to its humdrum tortoise life without any apparent ill effects from its Nov. 8 adventure.

Scientists first marked No. 1721 back in the 1980s as part of a tortoise study there that's been going on for nearly 50 years now.

"She is at least 45-years-old and has been living in this part of the station for decades," Archbold director Hilary Swain wrote on the Archbold blog this week. "In the past five 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."

To the folks at Archbold, good old 1721 (sorry, no cute nickname) is more than just a number. It is "a valuable study animal and beloved by visiting children and adults alike," Swain noted.

So they're glad that it escaped a stew pot. The best part of the story, according to Swain, was the driver's name: Stewart Butcher.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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