FWC: DeLand man 'hooked' gopher tortoises for food

By Sarah Panko, Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, May 19, 2017, 5:43 PM EDT

A 79-year-old DeLand man will spend one day in jail for "hooking" protected gopher tortoises for food.

  • Wildlife officials: DeLand man used hook to catch gopher tortoises
  • Gopher tortoises are a threatened species and protected by the state
  • FWC: Nathaniel Harris admitted to hooking them for food
  • JUMP TO: What to do if you encounter a gopher tortoise

Nathaniel Harris was charged with possession of a threatened species after wildlife officers said they got a report Tuesday of a man seen in the area of Highway 44 and County Road 46A in Sorrento trying to pull a gopher tortoise from a burrow.

In the state of Florida, both gopher tortoises and their burrows are protected under state law.

Officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provided exclusive photos of two gopher tortoises they said were caught by Harris, plus the crude wire hook used to pull them out.

"He was capturing (them) to eat them," FWC Officer Chad Weber said Friday. "He was going to take them home to eat them."

Authorities said that over the course of a few days, they got several calls about a man seen pulling gopher tortoises out of their burrows. The man would leave before officers got there. But on Tuesday, authorities said they spotted a man, later identified as Harris, using a 17-inch "gopher hook" to pull out a gopher tortoise.

"The metal piece of the wire... It will have a hook on the end of it, and they fish it down in there and they’ll grab the tortoise by the shell and pull it out," Weber said.

Officers said they found a long rifle and two live gopher tortoises in Harris' vehicle. One tortoise was released; the other was severely injured and taken to a veterinarian in DeLand.

In Florida, gopher tortoises are listed as threatened and are protected.

"There's no open season, so there's never a time where you're able to take them from the wild."

Animals experts with the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens said gopher tortoise burrows are used by over 300 different species.

"Without these burrows, they don’t have shelter, they don’t have protection. A lot of snakes use them as well as rodents," said Madison Polk with the zoo.

Taking and possessing a gopher tortoise is a misdemeanor charge. The court said a judge found Harris guilty in a pretrial hearing, giving him time served, which was one day in jail.

Officers said Harris admitted to capturing the tortoises to eat them, but "taking a protected species is same as shooting a bald eagle, so you can't just let him off."

At an address listed for Harris, no one answered the door Friday.