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August 15, 2014

Digging for Their Lives

An HSUS-backed project in Florida is unearthing thousands of threatened gopher tortoises, saving them from a cruel fate

All Animals magazine, September/October 2014

by Michael Sharp

Julie Busch Branaman/For The HSUS

The tortoise crawls up through the dark sandy dirt, heading toward the mouth of his burrow. But instead of emerging into the Florida sun, he runs into a layer of concrete. He uses his front claws to try to dig his way past the problem. He can’t get through.

Trapped in his burrow, the tortoise slides back. He climbs again. He slides back again. Again and again. Because of his slow metabolism, it will take months for him to die—of starvation, or dehydration, or suffocation—buried alive under a new house.

Nothing has ever hit Carissa Kent as hard as this image of a gopher tortoise. In her head, she imagines he’s trapped below someone’s living room, scratching at the concrete, dying slowly. Climbing and sliding.

This image drives her. Even today, it still causes her voice to crack slightly. This image, put simply, has changed her life.

Kent has always felt a pull to help. As a child, she would save up her birthday money, then head out to the local fast-food joint to buy meals for the homeless. Sometimes, she’d donate her money to an animal organization or stuff it in one of those charity coffers outside a grocery store. Once, in middle school, she even socked a bully who was picking on a friend.

After studying psychology in college, she spent six years as a child abuse investigator with the Seminole County Sheriff ’s Office. But then she read in an HSUS newsletter about efforts to save threatened gopher tortoises being buried below a new big-box store. Kent didn’t sleep for two nights. She read everything she could find online. She began calling biologists, conservationists, wildlife nonprofits and state agencies, taking her own crash course on the issue.

“Being buried alive—I was horrified,” she says. “If someone buried a dog, they would be going to jail. You would be arrested and charged with animal abuse. I was like, there’s no way I’m putting up with this nonsense.”

  • Julie Busch Branaman/For The HSUS

So, in the final stages of testing to become a special agent, she walked away from her childhood dream of joining the FBI. She cashed in her retirement savings and put it toward a solution—a project, “Saving Florida’s Gopher Tortoises,” for which The HSUS has helped secure funding for the past seven years.

“Within probably two days of reading that article, and doing all this research, I had my mind made up,” she says, adding with a laugh: “I was like, damn it, man—I knew my life was just done. Not in a bad way. But just that part of my life was done. And I have not had an iota of regret since.”

That’s how she came to be wading through this overgrown field in Apopka, Florida, on a hot Memorial Day weekend, some 25 miles northwest of Orlando.

Kent and her team, along with several HSUS employees and two families of volunteers, are spending this Sunday digging for tortoises at the end of an empty cul-de-sac—where homes Nos. 212 and 213 will one day stand in a housing development known as The Meadows of Maude Helen.

“Always look where you’re walking,” Kent calls out, getting the morning started with a safety briefing.

There are plenty of trip hazards across this lot, she warns. Grapevines. Burrows. There are also venomous snakes in the area. Eastern diamondbacks. Pygmy rattlesnakes. Coral snakes. “Do not put your hands in any tortoise burrows,” she cautions. And, of course, be mindful of the backhoe, on hand to assist with the digging.

Her final words of advice: “Stay hydrated.”

All around, 37 pink flags dot the landscape, rising above the thick brush, each one indicating another burrow. “Protected by Law,” the flags read, with a picture of a tortoise. “Stay 25 Feet Away.”

The team has already surveyed about a dozen lots in this phase of the rescue. Across the street, a halfblock up, three houses stand in various stages of development—one just a foundation, the next an empty shell, the next nearly done. In another lot, large piles of dirt, dumped during construction, loom like misplaced mountains.

Gopher tortoises are a keystone species: Their burrows provide shelter for more than 300 animals and insects, such as snakes, mice, toads and black widow spiders. Hit hard by urban development and actually eaten by humans in parts of the Southeast for decades, they’re now listed as threatened in Florida and a candidate for the federal endangered species list.

Perhaps fittingly then, these tortoises require a unique and delicate rescue process (see photos below). It alternates between one person kneeling down, digging carefully with a hand shovel, and another sitting high above on a backhoe, unearthing shrubs and large swaths of soil.

“There’s no other species that we use a piece of equipment like that to rescue,” says Dave Pauli, HSUS senior adviser for wildlife response and policy. “We’re taking this very ancient reptile and getting them with modern equipment, and getting them out of the way of civilization.”

Today, the person in the yellow backhoe is Mike Oliver. Two days ago, he was scuba diving in the Bahamas. But he cut the trip short, leaving his family behind to enjoy a few more days in paradise so that he could head back to this field, where ants, wolf spiders and countless walking sticks make their way up pant legs and across the backs of T-shirts.

“It’s just something I love to do,” he says, “and they know it.”

From high up on his backhoe, Mike Oliver awaits instructions as Dave Love digs for another tortoise. The foot-long green, white and orange stripes at each end of the PVC pole give Love an indication of how close he’s getting to the end of the burrow—or another turn. Julie Busch Branaman/For The HSUS

Oliver learned the art of backhoeing for tortoises from his father-in-law, George Hand, who had been out clearing trees in the early 90s when an environmental consultant approached him about trying to maybe dig gopher tortoises out from a construction site. “He just found his niche,” Oliver says. “Once word got out … the phone started ringing.”

In 2001, as the need for such operators continued to expand, Hand asked Oliver for some help, initially showing him the ropes by having him work the ground with a shovel. “What my father really instilled is safety,” he says, both for the person climbing into the hole and the tortoise they’re searching to save.

“It takes a gentle hand; it really does,” Oliver says. “You know there’s a living animal down there, and your purpose is to save him and to relocate him. So you’ve got to do it so gently.”

He’s a surgeon up in that seat, operating the long steel arm with the touch of a joystick. A dig can last anywhere from 15 minutes to two-plus hours, and the burrows themselves can reach 15 feet deep and 40 feet long. If the tortoise happens to be right-handed, the hole may wind to the right. Vice versa if he’s a leftie. About 40 percent of the time, there’s no one home.

Oliver will peel away the shrubs and grass from around the entrance, then, when it’s clear the burrow runs much deeper, start removing dirt several feet at a time. Toward the end, he can remove as little as a quarter-inch, if Kent, his co-digger on the ground, hits a particularly tough spot of clay.

At one point this morning, he uses the bucket to build stairs down into a hole, shaping and patting down the sand, so that Kent can descend in after a tortoise.

“He’s just showing off now,” someone jokes.

“We want a mermaid sculpture,” jokes another.

Kent kneels down later in another hole, digging through hard sand. She’s following a 10-foot-long PVC pole that was inserted earlier into the mouth of the burrow to help determine depth and direction. As she nears the end, she wonders if the burrow is ending or just turning.

She stops, asking Oliver to take about 3 inches off the top, then she slowly continues digging. An errant jab from a shovel can do major damage to a younger tortoise’s shell, so as Oliver says, it takes a gentle hand.

“It looks like we’re at the end,” Kent says. But she keeps digging, then sifts through the sand with her fingers. (“This is why manicures are useless on me.”) The smaller tortoises sometimes continue burrowing as the team pursues them, and the sand they kick back can cover their tracks.

“Oh, look,” she says, suddenly. “This is why we do it.”

  • The Dirt on the Dig: First, the team surveys the lot, identifying the half-moon-shaped burrows. All photos by Julie Busch Branaman/For The HSUS

  • Step 2: A 10-foot PVC pole is inserted into the burrow to determine depth and direction and to also protect the pathway should the sandy dirt collapse. 

  • Step 3: The backhoe typically takes off the top layer of grass and shrubs from around the opening. 

  • Step 4: Digging then alternates between the backhoe and a person on the ground. They follow along the pole, which has three foot-long colored stripes at each end to indicate when they’re getting close. 

  • Step 5: Should diggers find other animals, such as this toad, they remove them as well for relocation. 

  • Step 6: To prevent injuries to the tortoises, diggers never pull them out from behind. Instead, they dig around them, and then either gently turn them around or work them out from underneath. 

  • Step 7: Rescued tortoises are placed in plastic containers in the shade, with dirt from their burrow to reduce stress. The lid is placed to simulate being back underground. 

She finds a tortoise, 4 inches past the end. Like the others, this one is placed in a container with dirt from the burrow to reduce stress. The lid is then closed to simulate the feeling of being back underground, and the container is placed in a coveted slice of shade.

The lesson is hammered home again and again throughout the day: Keep digging. Keep looking. At one point, workers locate a tortoise hidden in a side chamber after initially digging right past him.

“That was a nice find,” Pauli congratulates.

Typically, when there isn’t quite this audience, Kent will both signal and celebrate another find with what’s become known as her tortoise dance. She gives a very brief preview Sunday, swinging her hips, singing “tor-toise dance … tor-toise dance.”

“It took a long time,” Pauli quips, “to get her to come out of her shell.”

As the team moves from hole to hole, volunteer Jeannie Carroll spends much of her morning slowly crisscrossing the property, triple-checking that they haven’t missed any of the half-moon-shaped burrows. She looks for paths and small corridors through the weeds. She lifts up vines and leaves. A small pile of fresh dirt is typically a dead giveaway.

“When you can go through again and you can see it using a different eye, and you find more—yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Carroll says. “Because those are ones that possibly could have been buried and lost their life.”

Throughout the day, local television reporters stop by to film digs and conduct interviews. One such story is picked up as far away as San Francisco.

But what makes Oliver really happy to see are the kids—that interest from the next generation. A father and son stop by to watch for a bit. One family of volunteers helps Carroll search for overlooked burrows. And 21-year-old Taina Torres, a biology student at the University of Central Florida who is here with her dad and sister, gets the honor of removing a young tortoise from a burrow at the back of the lot.

“It was really cool. I’m going to remember this for a long time,” she says afterward, laughing. She adds later: “I feel like it’s making a difference in the community—human and animal. I feel like it’s important to do conservation work, and that’s what I want to do when I get older.”

At first, Bruce Riggins thought he saw a cat across the street, walking low, stalking prey through the grass.

But the thing sure didn’t act like a cat. So Riggins got up from his lunch, put on his glasses and walked outside his newly built house for a closer look. “There was a gopher tortoise,” he says. “It was making its way back to its burrow.”

About a week later, Riggins watched as someone ran a brush hog mower through the lot across the street, clearing the land. That’s when Riggins began to see more and more burrows: “I was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is something that somebody should know about.’ ”

To date, the project has saved more than 4,300 tortoises.

He emailed the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, where he’d previously volunteered. “I figured for sure that these things would be killed. My fear was that they were going to get run over with the brush hog, and the blades were going to hit them.”

Thanks to regulations that Kent and then-HSUS state director Jennifer Hobgood helped push for in 2007, developers in Florida can no longer bury gopher tortoises on construction sites. They must relocate them instead.

But hundreds, if not thousands, of “incidental take” permits were grandfathered in with those regulations, allowing some companies to still build on top of active burrows. These are the companies that Kent now works with and seeks out as an HSUS consultant—hustling back and forth across Florida, working days on end, to get the tortoises out before the construction begins.

To date, the project has saved more than 4,300 tortoises.

In the case of the Maude Helen lots, site of this weekend’s dig, the email from Riggins prompted a visit from fish and wildlife officer Bernie Bresie. He assessed the situation. He met with a developer. And eventually, he called Kent.

“Gopher tortoises, most importantly, are endangered because of development in Florida,” Bresie says. “But they are also a very important ecological animal because their burrows provide homes for a number of other endangered species or threatened species, like indigo snakes, burrowing owls and some of the smaller animals. …

“So once those burrows are destroyed, you’re affecting not just the gopher tortoise’s habitat but other species’. So that’s why we’re trying so hard to protect them.”

  • Two young gopher tortoises are among the many relocated from the sites of future housing developments. Julie Busch Branaman/For The HSUS

In mid-April, Kent and her team helped remove 37 tortoises from the development. They’ll save 17 more this Memorial Day weekend—three babies found Saturday while they were out marking burrows and 14 more during Sunday’s dig.

The team seems to have stumbled upon a nursery of sorts in these two cul-de-sac lots: Of the 17 rescued, all but one are 4 years or younger. Pauli notes that’s why this species is having so much trouble reproducing at a rate that keeps up with the construction: They don’t reach sexual maturity until somewhere between 12 and 20. (They can live to be as old as 100.)

The oldest tortoise they find Sunday is actually the last tortoise they find. On most afternoons, it would have been too late to start digging into a burrow this size, but Pauli had snaked a tunnel cam down in there, revealing his exact location. This one’s an estimated 14 years old, and judging by the length and depth of his burrow, he doesn’t appear to have been slowed by what Kent suspects is a birth defect. He’s missing his right front arm below the elbow.

As Kent unearths him, Riggins watches from above, having just swung by to say hello. Later, back at the staging area, he makes a staggering point about this rescue work: “That little one there. You figure, that’s going to live the rest of my life, my kid’s life and my kid’s kid’s life.

“That’s amazing.”

Almost exactly 24 hours later, the older tortoise with the bum front leg stands in front of a new burrow, contemplating his next move. He is now 360 miles away from The Meadows of Maude Helen.

First thing Monday morning, Pauli and Nicole Paquette, HSUS vice president of wildlife protection, drove this tortoise and the 16 others from Apopka up into the Florida panhandle, to the 51,000-acre Nokuse Plantation. The private preserve is dedicated to conservation and will house these tortoises and other transplants for the remainder of their long lives.

But first, they must go through check-in.

Each tortoise gets examined and marked for future identification before being released at Nokuse Plantation. Julie Busch Branaman/For The HSUS

Each tortoise is assigned a number, which is marked onto their shells with a coded system of notches and tiny holes. The location of each marking corresponds with designated numbers on a chart. It doesn’t hurt; it’s the equivalent, staffers explain, of humans cutting their fingernails.

The tortoises are measured and weighed, and staffers estimate their ages by reading the lines along their undersides, like rings on a tree. Tortoises with flat undersides are marked as female. Those with a more concave belly are marked as males.

Helping with the process is Derek Breakfield, who recently graduated from Marshall University with a master’s degree in biology. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hired him for this new position to work specifically with the gopher tortoises at Nokuse.

Typically, Breakfield releases the tortoises just 10 at a time, so as not to attract predators with too many new smells at once. He washes them off with water, then rubs new sand over their shells as he sets them free. He likes to do this early in the mornings, before the dew’s cooked off, driving the newcomers about 10 miles out from the lab, up into the plantation, over sandy roads and through two locked gates.

Those accomplishments, it’s what makes all of the work, and brutal conditions, and long days absolutely worth it. It’s really incredible—the scope of what this little project just to save the tortoises from being buried alive has become." -Carissa Kent

In each of the large pens, roughly 30 acres each, Nokuse staffers have dug starter burrows for the rescued tortoises. One in five times, the animals will walk right down into that burrow and call it home. But with an internal GPS system of sorts—a trait they share with pigeons, salmon and monarch butterflies—many will eventually emerge and try to return home.

That’s why each pen is surrounded, for at least a year, by greyish-black silk fencing that extends a foot below the surface. The new tortoises sometimes wander this fence line; the coyotes, though, have caught on, doing the same themselves each night. So late in the afternoons, staffers walk the perimeters, trying to deter the predators with their scent, placing tortoises back safely into burrows.

On Monday afternoon, they find a male crawling along the fencing, apparently struggling to dig a new burrow in a tough stretch of dirt near a root. Bob Walker, a gopher tortoise technician whom the local schoolkids know as “Turtle Bob” for his educational talks, digs out and freshens up an old starter burrow nearby.

Placed just outside that burrow, the tortoise slides down into the mouth of the opening. A moment later, he suddenly shoots out of sight. Breakfield notes: “They’re surprisingly fast when they want to be.”

Later, they’ll look up this guy—No. 1958—and learn that he’d been released here on March 24, 2012. His old burrow had apparently been along a stretch of train tracks. He’d been safely dug up and removed before a round of rail maintenance.

Kent and her team skipped the Nokuse trip to move on to a construction site in Jacksonville. They haven’t worked with the developer before, so in hopes of building a strong working relationship, they volunteered to start searching for tortoises on the Memorial Day holiday.

In the weeks that follow, they’ll return to The Meadows of Maude Helen to finish rescuing tortoises from the cul-de-sac lots.

Over the next two days, Breakfield will release two waves of the young Apopka tortoises in another territory at Nokuse, where blackberry bushes and gopher grass provide thick ground cover for their protection. For once, these youngsters have perfect timing: They arrive as staffers are completing a project to install electrical fencing around the pens, to better keep the coyotes and raccoons at bay.

But for now, as Monday winds down, a small group of Nokuse staffers and HSUS employees stands watching as the 14-year-old with the bum front leg considers a starter burrow about 35 feet from the fence line.

Roughly 24 hours after being rescued from a construction site in Apopka, this 14-year-old tortoise quickly takes to a safe new home, crawling down into a starter burrow at Nokuse Plantation. Julie Busch Branaman/For The HSUS

Breakfield gently rubs sand over his shell, then does the same with his underbelly. It’s so quiet out here—save for the occasional call of a bird, the wind through pine trees and the rough flutter of grasshopper wings. There’s no hint of civilization in any direction, just the sandy terrain, fields of white and yellow fleabane flowers, and those thin young pines.

Originally, this was just going to be a mock release, something for an accompanying television reporter to shoot. But the tortoise seems to take to his new spot. He crawls down into the mouth of the burrow, pauses, then heads into the sandy darkness. In his wake, a crowd of small black crickets emerges. Breakfield and Walker decide to just let him go—free now in the dirt, far away from the creeping threat of construction. No concrete in sight.

“Just a very special moment,” Pauli will say later. “I have no fear that that tortoise went from truly a potentially worst possible situation to a potentially best possible situation. That doesn’t happen in life a lot.”

Make a donation to support the gopher tortoise project »


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