Slow deaths of 5 tortoises expose horrifying practice. North Palm Beach County shoppers looking for low-priced pants, patio furniture and DVD players will owe an awesome debt to five dead reptiles. The five gopher tortoises had the bad luck to dig their burrows on the site of a future Wal-Mart in Lake Park. And they paid a ghastly price: The state allowed the store's developers to bury the tortoises alive earlier this year, leaving them to starve or gasp for air for the weeks or months it would take them to die. Wal-Mart paid $11,409 for the permit.
John J. Lopinot/The Post
The state has allowed as many as 74,000 gopher tortoises to be buried in the past 14 years, collecting $47 million in fees. As many as 74,000 gopher tortoises have met the same doom in the past 14 years, with the blessing of Florida's wildlife regulators. But this time, the fate of the Lake Park Five inspired an outcry that Cynthia Pandolfe heard more than 4,800 miles away.
"I was outraged and shocked that they can do this," said Pandolfe, a Honolulu resident who was one of many people to receive an e-mail alert from the Humane Society of the United States denouncing the actions of Wal-Mart and the state. "They're basically selling their souls."
The Humane Society's Nov. 23 alert, inspired by a tip from a resident, drew hundreds of similar responses, the group estimates. It came too late to save those five tortoises, but it cast a nationwide light on a practice that disturbs even some who participate in it.
"People are upset, even in our agency, at the individual losses of tortoises," said Kim Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which issues the burial permits. "Many of our staff have devoted their lives to gopher tortoise conservation."
Wal-Mart also doesn't relish the idea of entombing tortoises, spokesman Eric Brewer said. He said the company considers burial a last resort and is interested in working on alternatives.
"This will come up again, and we want to do a better job than what's been happening," he said.
Wal-Mart is far from alone. Gopher tortoises have suffered from countless housing subdivisions, shopping centers, roads and other developments throughout Florida. They've also posed obstacles to some projects, including Florida Atlantic University's long-troubled effort to build a football stadium in Boca Raton.
These are the main rubs: The tortoises thrive in the same high, sandy ground that developers prize. And the most popular alternative to burial ? moving the tortoises someplace else ? has serious drawbacks. Some gopher tortoises suffer from a contagious respiratory disease, so the state won't allow landowners to move them off-site. And some relocation attempts do more harm than good: Dumped onto unsuitable habitat, the tortoises try to flee, only to fall victim to cars or dogs. Landowners also can move the tortoises to a safe spot within the same tract as their original burrow. But eventually that can leave tortoises scattered in isolated spots throughout a subdivision, unable to reach each other to breed.
"It's kind of a feel-good permit," wildlife commission biologist Ricardo Zambrano said of that last option. "It has very little biological value for the tortoises."
None of the alternatives avoids the ecological loss that occurs whenever tortoises' habitats are destroyed. Their burrows provide shelter to more than 360 animal species, according to the not-for-profit Gopher Tortoise Council ? including owls, armadillos, snakes, the gopher frog, the gopher cricket, and a species of mouse than cannot exist without the tortoises' tunnels.
After being around for 60 million years, the tortoise has lost as much as 80 percent of its population during the past century as its habitat has dwindled, state scientists estimate. The burial program offers one remedy for the habitat problem: The permits have brought in $47 million worth of fees since 1991, allowing the wildlife commission to buy and manage 22,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat statewide. "That land is protected forever," Jamerson said. Still, the price that the buried tortoises pay strikes the Humane Society and other critics as ? well, inhumane.
"To think they're just entombed ? would you do that to your cat or your dog or your rabbit?" asked Laurie Macdonald, an activist for the group Defenders of Wildlife, who serves on a state panel examining gopher tortoise policies. "It's pretty cold-blooded what we're doing."
Jamerson said the commission's staff and the tortoise panel are examining ways to lessen future tortoise killings, perhaps by increasing efforts to put displaced tortoises on public land. The staff also is proposing to declare the gopher tortoise a threatened species ? possibly affording greater protection than its current status, "species of special concern." A change can't come soon enough for people such as Pandolfe, who said Florida should emulate the philosophy she sees in Hawaii.
"Animals are special here," she said. "We don't just go killing animals for money."
Copyright 2005 Palm Beach Post