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Florida pelicans are being slashed, beaten

A photo on the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue website shows a juvenile brown pelican recovering from surgery for a slit pouch.
A photo on the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue website shows a juvenile brown pelican recovering from surgery for a slit pouch.
Published Jan. 17, 2015

Someone has taken a violent dislike to Florida's iconic brown pelicans.

In the Florida Keys over the past six weeks, more than a dozen pelicans have turned up with their pouches slashed, left to die of starvation.

"It is heartbreaking to see," said Maya Trotman, director of Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue, which has dispatched volunteers to try to find any more maimed pelicans still flying around.

Meanwhile, in the Jacksonville area this past weekend, 18 pelicans washed ashore along a 40-mile stretch of beach with fractured wings, the bones sticking out. Ten are dead, and the rest will never fly again.

"It's so horrible. … It looks like somebody took a ball bat and just smashed the heck out of them," said Cindy Mosling, co-founder of the Bird Emergency Aid & Kare Sanctuary (BEAKS for short) on Big Talbot Island near Jacksonville, which is taking care of the eight survivors.

Pelicans are not on the endangered species list, but like most seabirds and shorebirds they are still protected from harm by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Neither the injuries suffered near Jacksonville nor the ones in the Keys were an accident, say wildlife officials and bird rehabilitation experts. The sheer number of injured pelicans proves that, as well as the manner in which they were attacked. For instance, Trotman said the slash wounds on the pelicans found on Cudjoe Key and from Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key appeared to have been inflicted by someone "with a sharp knife."

How could someone maul or mutilate a bird that's always such a delight for picture-snapping tourists? Some suspect it's because pelicans can also be a bane to anglers, snatching their bait and getting caught on their hooks.

Wildlife officials emphasize that they are still investigating. They are also hoping the public will report seeing anything suspicious.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information on each of the two pelican attacks. A dock construction company that uses a pelican in its logo has put up a $5,000 reward for information about the slashed pelicans in the Keys. And Mosling said BEAKS plans to offer a reward for information on whoever beat up their pelicans.

This is not the first time pelicans have been targets of violence in the Keys. In December 2013, several pelicans were found with their pouches slit, and no one was ever apprehended and the attacks stopped — until recently.

Incidents of wildlife cruelty in the past six months have included a teenager who shot a dolphin with a bow and arrow and someone who shot a pregnant female dolphin with a gun. That second case remains under investigation.

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.