Broward News

Florida Girls Light Tortoise on Fire, Set Off Hunt for Vigilante Justice

"You kids act like you never did something stupid in your life," one wrote on her Facebook.

"So fuck off!" the other one commented.

"Gettttttt obvvveeeerrrrrrr it," the Orange Park teenager with a black bob and perfectly manicured eyebrows fired back. "It's not like we took the last one off the planet."

It's true. In 2003, the Defenders of Wildlife estimated there might be as many as 800,000 gopher tortoises alive, although they are in deep decline. The animal is considered threatened in Florida, and yet the specific one that the two girls brutally lit on fire and tortured was indeed not the sole remaining reptile of the species.

Yesterday, a video was posted online of the two girls abusing a pet gopher tortoise. After the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received numerous tips through Facebook, they posted a reassurance that something would be done.

The FWC's post went viral with more than 3,000 shares and mentioned that the agency was working with the State Attorney's Office to build a case.

Facebook offers clues into the relationship between the two girls -- whom New Times isn't naming because they're both minors. In some photos, one of the girls points to it as it sits inside a fishbowl. On July 8, the girls moved in together following a family spat.

"Well my parents disowned me out of the house and luckily my friend excepted me in her house and I love her a lot!!"

Presumably she brought the turtle.

The video has been taken down from Facebook and the shock-video service LiveLeak but has been ripped by private individuals and is still circulating the internet. In it, the girls light the animal on fire with alcohol, rip its shell, and slam it on a sidewalk.

Commenters suggested numerous ways to punish the girls -- and in the vein of internet commenters, most of them were hyperbolic and disturbing. Some of the internet commenters seemed to believe in the ancient Babylonian principle of Hammurabi's Code. "Burn her," someone wrote, channeling the idea of "an eye for an eye."

"It will be up to a judge, but the inhumane treatment of any animal is never acceptable," an FWC spokesman replied to the commenters. "Gopher tortoises are a threatened species and It is against the law to kill, harass or destroy gopher tortoises, their eggs or burrows."

But more helpfully, commenters came to the rescue, eventually identifying the girls behind the cell phone footage and even posting their addresses so the FWC could easily follow up. It was a process reminiscent of one detailed in Clay Shirky's now-classic book on social networks, Here Comes Everybody, in which a man armed with the internet successfully recovers a stolen phone.

Eventually, a friend of the alleged animal abusers posted a screenshot from a private Facebook message. In it, one of the two girls wrote, "Court date and fine for sure... We know what we did was wrong and the law will handle it. We regret it and ask the Lord for forgiveness."

Although the message shows that the girls believe punishment is imminent, the FWC says justice will take time. Although rumor spread that the girls were federally charged with animal cruelty, the agency said through a spokesperson that wasn't the case. FWC officials will sit down with the State Attorney's Office next week to figure out the next step.

"They haven't been charged yet, and we want to put together the best possible case," says Karen Parker, who is handling the case for the FWC. "I understand that people are very, very passionate about this, but we need to follow the legal process, as we do in all our cases."

Send your story tips to the author, Allie Conti.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter: @allie_conti

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.