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Tortoises taken on life-saving journey

Vivienne Handy drove with her window down, the wind whooshing into her Toyota 4 Runner and nearly muffling the faint sound behind the back seat.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

Inside a plastic recycling bin, gopher tortoises were acting on instinct. When threatened, they dig.

What the tortoises could not know was that the burrows they had considered a refuge were being turned into a parking lot, and that the human they now wanted to escape from planned to find them a new home in Hillsborough County.

Developers are rarely so kind. Usually, they get rid of the protected gopher tortoises by paying for the right to kill them.

But Handy, an environmental scientist, and her client, Discount Auto Parts, which is building a 68,000-square-foot store near Plant City, wanted to save the tortoises. Their numbers are dwindling so quickly that Florida considers it a species of special concern. The population is still about 1.2-million, but that's less than one-third of its historic numbers.

Rather than pave over the tortoises, Handy dug them out of their tunnels, tested them for disease and moved them to a 460-acre environmental preserve owned by Hillsborough County in the northwestern part of the county.

"Discount Auto Parts likes to take the high road," said Michael Rothenberg, one of the company's other environmental consultants, with no pun intended.

No other developer in Hillsborough relocated gopher tortoises last year, and only one landowner may follow Handy's example this year, said Jill Lehman, a county environmental technician. Eleven landowners in 1996 paid for the right to destroy the tortoises, up from none in 1990. The money buys large tracts elsewhere for tortoises.

"Picture the little tortoise digging and at the top of the burrow hitting asphalt," Handy said.

Even government agencies choose destruction over relocation. The Florida Department of Transportation paid to kill tortoises when expanding U.S. 41 in Lutz and extending Linebaugh Avenue in Westchase, records show.

The reason is money. It's easier, and often cheaper, to pay for destroying burrows than to transplant tortoises to good gopher ground. Tortoises like the same high and dry land developers seek, so tortoise habitat can cost thousands an acre. For instance, the DOT paid $4,335 to clear gophers from 3.2 acres during its roadwork.

Relocating the animals takes more of a consultant's time, which costs money. But it also takes longer, which is a more important consideration for developers. Project managers usually would rather pay than wait. And, after all the trouble, the stress of relocation sometimes kills the tortoises anyhow.

The first phase of Handy's rescue effort began weeks before the digging, with a survey of the property. The Tampa-based scientist usually works for phosphate companies, and doesn't always get to rescue the tortoises she studies.

For Discount, she cataloged the number of empty and occupied tortoise holes, information she would need to include in an application to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, which grants permits to relocate or kill gopher tortoises.

Active holes have gopher tortoise tracks outside their entrances. Other animals such as the Florida mouse, indigo snake and gopher frog also live in the tunnels, both abandoned ones and those still in use by tortoises. That's one reason biologists consider the tortoise so important to the ecosystem.

Once they obtained the permit, Handy and crew had to wait for the weather. Night temperatures must stay above 50 degrees for three days in a row for a gopher move: The cold-blooded tortoises can't take extreme heat or cold.

With the weather cooperating, Handy and her crew began work at the Discount site at 7 a.m. A backhoe dug into areas with occupied gopher tortoise burrows, exposing their tunnels.

Morning faded into afternoon, and all they had found were three baby tortoises, small enough to fit in a baseball glove. The tiniest weighed 4.6 ounces.

Late in the day, Brian Manley, a contractor who frequently helps Handy, stood deep in one pit, where a tortoise's burrow spiraled down. He stuck his head in the hole and came eye-to-eye with a possum.

Another hole held a tortoise. As soon as Manley and the tortoise saw each other, the tortoise turned around and headed down. It dug its claws fiercely into the walls of the hole so Manley could not pull it out.

Manley dug with a hand shovel until the animal came loose. The rest of the group let out a yell.

Manley had captured a big one, a typical adult weighing 7.2 pounds. Gopher tortoises grow to an average of 9 to 11 inches long, but some get as large as 15 inches.

The animals' next stop was the Santa Cruz Animal Clinic in Brandon, where Dr. Clarence Dunning tranquilized the tortoises, then drew blood to test for upper respiratory disease. The disease can spread through an entire population of tortoises, another reason developers hesitate to relocate them.

Dunning must send the blood samples by overnight mail to a University of Florida lab in Gainesville for testing. Results take a week and cost $226.14.

Part of Handy's task is to find a new home for the tortoises. There is no county-owned haven for the animals, even though developers have been paying fees since 1991 to purchase tortoise land. County biologist Rob Heath said the Game Commission will use those fees to buy 800 acres of terrain by Bullfrog Creek near Apollo Beach on Tampa Bay south of Tampa for about $2.4-million.

But Handy persuaded the county to let her reintroduce any gophers they might find at Discount Auto Parts' property onto land it owns in Keystone.

The lab tests came back negative, and Handy loaded the tortoises up at Dunning's office for the last leg of their journey.

Before Handy releases the tortoises, she marks them by drilling or etching grooves in certain boxes on their shell patterns.

Finally, Handy set the large tortoise down in front of an empty hole. At first it retreated into its shell. Handy picked it up again and nudged it forward. The tortoise started to move. It looked around, staring in the hole, twisting its neck around, while Handy snapped pictures for her client's records.

The tortoise froze, then inched forward again, kicking up dirt as it approached the tunnel. It stuck its head inside, then slowly slipped into darkness.

In seach of tortoises

1. Scientists first check tortoise burrows for signs of life. Plants grow up around empty tunnels; footprints stay near the mouths of active burrows.

2. Scientists push a tube down the burrows to see how deep the tunnels go and in what direction. Some scientists use tubes with cameras on the end.

3. Backhoes excavate the holes, which can change directions and run 20 feet long and 10 feet deep. Digging takes hours, and sometimes other animals are found.

4. Once the tortoise is cornered, excavators dig around it to pull it out. The tortoises digs its claws into the hole's walls to avoid capture.