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February 19, 2013

Kind News Feature: Treasure Hunt for Gopher Tortoises

When a housing development was planned to be built on gopher tortoise habitat, The HSUS stepped in to save the tortoises

Kind News magazine, February/March 2013

  • One of the 18 gopher tortoises saved.

The HSUS’s Dave Pauli and members of his team were on a mission: to find buried treasure: Crawling through the sandy soil, they inserted a long pipe down half-moon-shaped holes. When they heard the pipe tap against something hard, they knew they were close. Then a well-trained backhoe operator went to work, scooping the soil back inch by inch. As each treasure was unearthed, it was gently placed in a container.

Pauli’s team wasn’t looking for pirate gold. They were searching for a different prize: gopher tortoises. They had come to a Florida construction site to save the animals.

Gopher tortoises are a threatened species. That means they are on their way to becoming endangered. The reptiles live in deep burrows that they dig in sandy soil. The burrows can be 25 feet deep and 40 feet long.

The tortoises at the Tarpon Springs, Fla., site were in trouble. A housing development was planned to be built in their habitat. 

The construction would destroy the tortoises’ burrows and likely bury them alive. Luckily, the builder called The HSUS for help before beginning construction.

Help from our friends

With donations from some concerned people, the delicate operation was a success. The rescue team was able to safely dig out all the tortoises on the property.

Dave Pauli drove the tortoises to the Nokuse Plantation in Florida’s panhandle. There, they were released into their new 35-acre home. A special fence surrounding the property prevents the tortoises from wandering away. And there are plenty of yummy plants for them to feed on.

The first animal released dove into a nearby hole but quickly came back out. Then he disappeared down a different hole. “I guess he was shopping for a better apartment,” says Pauli with a chuckle.

Did you know? Gopher tortoises...

  • are powerful earth-movers and use  their scaly, shovel-like front feet and long claws to dig their burrows
  • share their burrows with many other animals, such as snakes, mice,  frogs, and burrowing owls, who  depend on the burrows for shelter and as a hunting ground
  • eat a variety of low-growing plants
  • may live for 60 years or more
  • are threatened mainly due to loss of habitat
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