FWC: Gopher tortoise stolen from Florida research facility to be ‘eaten for dinner'

Suspect caught in Indian River County
Posted at 8:55 PM, Dec 21, 2016

A gopher tortoise living at a research facility in Highlands County was taken from its habitat and nearly became one man’s supper.

According to reports from the Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the tortoise was taken from the Archbold Biological Station by 40-year-old Stewart Butcher.

“She's at least 45-years-old,” Betsie Rothermel, the Director of Herpetology at Archbold Biological station said.  “We have been tracking these animals so closely the last few years.  She is one of 15 females that are that old, more than 40-years-old in our population.  So, we would hate to lose one of those animals we've been studying forever.”

FWC said Stewart accidentally drove onto the research facility while looking for landscaping and nursery places.  He drove past tortoise number 1721 outside her burrow and said “I’m going to get that on the way back.”

Stewart’s girlfriend told investigators when he drove back around he saw the tortoise was still there so he jumped out, picked it up, put it in the car and said, “We are going to eat it for dinner.”

Investigators said Butcher then drove more than 100 miles from the facility with the tortoise in the back of the car. 

“We would’ve never known she was gone,” Betsie Rothermel said.  “We check on them weekly.”

The tortoise has a tracking device cemented to its shell, but it operates off of radio frequencies and can only be found within a half mile.

Suspect Caught In Indian River County

It wasn’t until a few hours after the tortoise was taken that troopers responding to a 911 call for domestic violence found the tortoise. 

According to their report, his girlfriend was being “battered and held against her will by her boyfriend (Butcher).”

The report said he was beating her while driving down Interstate 95 in Indian River County.  When troopers pulled Butcher over, they said they found signs of abuse.

At that time, the alleged victim told them there were drugs in the car and gopher tortoise number 1721 was in the back of the trunk.

“We got her back alive,” Rothermel said. “It's really disheartening. We get to know them as individuals from their behaviors.  For somebody to come along and think they're dinner, that's really, really bad.”

Florida listed gopher tortoises on their list of threatened species.  Rothermel said they’ve been studying the animals at the non-profit for half a century.

“It's the longest running study of gopher tortoises anywhere,” Rothermel said.  “We learn some interesting things about their basic population dynamics.”

Gopher tortoise 1721 was back in her burrow on Wednesday but didn't come out.

Rothermel said they have to order a new $200 tracking device for her because Butcher broke the one she had on her off with a machete.  He told investigators at the scene he hit the tortoise with his car but there were no signs of damage.

According to FWC investigators Butcher told them, “They used to eat them back in the day.”

“I don't think there is any reason to be eating gopher tortoises, we don't need them for food,” Rothermel said. 

Rothermel said all of the research at the facility is funded by donations and grants.