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Animal activist who threw fisherman's catch back in the water on trial in Clearwater Friday

Michael Leaming, right, confronts fisherman Bob H. Hope at Crescent Lake Park before throwing the man's fish back in the lake in a video that went viral. [YouTube still courtesy Kayla Leaming]
Published Nov. 16, 2018

The saga of St. Petersburg's most internet famous flying fish will likely close today, more than a year after it began with animal activist Michael Leaming launching a tilapia into Crescent Lake.

Leaming, 32, is charged with "interference with taking of fish," a violation of Florida statute 379.105, and has a non-jury trial scheduled in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in Clearwater this afternoon.

In July of 2017, a family was fishing from a concrete platform at Crescent Lake Park and had caught the tilapia when Leaming's young son approached and said, "Did you know that fish feel pain?"

Seconds later, Mike Leaming confronted the family, asking what if it was a dog, or a human child on the concrete. He then grabbed the fish and launched it back into the water, shouting, "Call the police! I just saved a fish's life, how about that? How about that?"

Bob J. Hope, son of the man who had caught the fish, did call the cops. An officer did respond to the park, but St. Petersburg Police said at the time that the fish throwing, which officers did not witness, did not warrant further action.

The incident found a new life online, however, after Hope posted a video of the confrontation that had been captured on a cell phone.

That video went viral, reposted to various social media platforms again and again in the coming months. It was picked up by digital media in other states and countries, even getting coverage in Australia. The popular hunting brand Realtree reposted the video calling the incident "harassment."

Altogether, the video was viewed millions of times, and tallied thousands of outraged comments. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received many calls and online messages about the video, and after an investigation, referred the case to the State Attorney's Office, which charged Leaming in June.

A report from the FWC shows that an investigator believed Leaming had also committed battery by moving Brenda Hope's leg before grabbing the fish as well as petit theft. The woman had placed her foot on the fish during the argument. The State Attorney's Office did not charge Leaming with those crimes.

Leaming was in St. Petersburg from Orlando with his wife and two children to take part in an animal rights protest connected to the group Direct Action Everywhere at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant in Pinellas Park. That turned into chaotic scene earlier in the day when shouting protesters burst into the restaurant wearing animal masks and laid on the floor, while another pretended to stab them with a knife.

Michael Leaming's wife Kayla Leaming, who also participated in that protest, said the animal rights group PETA has supported the family throughout the case and introduced them to Michael Leaming's defense attorney Peri Sedigh. She would not say if PETA had helped with the legal fees, but thanked them "for all their support."

When asked about it, PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said, "Although PETA did not connect this activist with his lawyer, we fully support his determination and efforts to stand up for animals."

RELATED: Knives, Chick-fil-A and flying tilapia: Here's the animal rights group behind it all

If found guilty of the second degree misdemeanor, Leaming could be sentenced to a maximum fine of $500, 60 days in jail and six months probation, as well as mandatory counseling.

State Attorney spokesman Frank Piazza said prosecutors were not seeking jail time for Leaming, as it's his first offense.

"On a theft case normally they get court ordered theft counseling, or battery counseling on a battery case," Piazza said. "I don't know what counseling you give someone about a fish."

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @spatatimes on Twitter.

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