By James Call
excerpts from Nov.-Dec.1999/Florida Wildlife
Paul Thomas and Edwin Roman were electro-fishing at Bobby Hicks Park
near MacDill Air Force Base this past spring when they spotted something
floating in the water. "At first I thought it was a lawn ornament," said
Thomas, a fishery biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Commission (FWC) Lakeland office. "As we got closer, it looked like a dead
gopher tortoise that someone had tossed into the water. It wasn't. It was
very much alive, struggling tortoise, doing its very best to stay afloat".
"She was pretty worn out by the time we got there", said Thomas. They
lifted the exhausted animal out of the water and saw written with a black
magic marker on her underside the name SPIKE. The curiously named reptile
rested in the bottom of the boat while Thomas and Roman finished a fish
It wasn't malice that delivered Spike to a south Tampa pond. The
evidence suggests she was once a pet. Most likely the owner decided to
return her to the wild so that she could enjoy a life of freedom, to live
the way a tortoise was meant to live.
Unfortunately gopher tortoises don't live in water ant more than cats
and dogs do. Spike almost became another example of death due to
It happens all the time in all regions of Florida. People think they are
helping an abandoned baby bird, a family of raccoons or a lost bear cub.
reality they are doing more harm than good by interfering with the natural
order of things. This is bad for wildlife in many ways. Human food was not
made for animals, it lacks the nutrients and vitamins they need. It is
dangerous when wild animals begin to see people as a source of food. It
leads them to wander away from their habitat into areas where people live
and consider them a nuisance. They risk getting hit by a car, shot at by
irate homeowner and either caught or killed by a trapper hired by
to rid them of the problem. Then there's the case of Little Bit. The black
bear would cross state Route 46 daily around 6:00 p.m. to meet a gentleman
who would feed her at a gazebo in his back yard. She was hit by a car and
required surgery to survive.
Now Little Bit lives at Silver Springs Wildlife Park, spending the
life in captivity. Little Bit is lucky that she got medical care.
Usually an injured animal wanders off into the woods to die. When someone
begins to feed an animal it tends to become more aggressive in its demands
for food. This puts the animal's life in jeopardy when people either feel
threatened or angered by its begging, looting of gardens, rummaging
garbage and eating food left out for pets. There are two ways to fix the
problem: move the wildlife panhandler or kill it.
Kindness motivates people to feed wildlife directly and to leave
of food for them to find, but it does more harm than good. Give a bunny
rabbit marshmallows, leftovers to a raccoon, popcorn to birds and you
disrupt their eating habits and create nutritional deficiencies. If it's a
young animal, the deficiencies could lead to malformations. Caring for a
wild animal is more complex than most people think. "One of the first
a person will do when they rescue a baby bird is try to feed it bread and
milk," said FWC spokesman Henry Cabbage. "Well, birds are not mammals.
don't eat bread or milk. They become dehydrated. It kills them.
Baby songbirds, like mockingbirds, chickadees, etc., are feed every 15
or 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset. They need a diet of insects, worms
other invertebrates. A parent feeds the baby beak to beak.
Most people do not have what mammals, babies and adults, need to
survive. For example, any cow's milk or cow milk derivatives fed to baby
mammals will cause dehydration diarrhea and lead to death. Rehabilitation
centers use special formulas designed to simulate the mother's natural
content and gut bacteria and provide the proper requirements.
Most baby mammals must be feed every two hours around the clock, then
stimulated to eliminate waste. It is very important to raise wildlife in a
manner that prevents improper imprinting, otherwise the animal will never
learn how to live in the wild. Rehabilitators are trained and equipped to
provide the right things for those creatures. It is always best for the
animal, and for safety of those who come to their rescue, to seek help
a trained wildlife worker. "Animals can take care of themselves", said
Richard Zambrano, a wildlife biologist in Palm Beach County. Other acts of
kindness also present problems. That is especially true of fledgling birds
(birds out of the nest and learning to fly), fawns, and cottontail
In reality, most wild animals will avoid the area of the nest or den when
they perceive danger. They do not want to reveal the location of their
young. Moving babies creates orphans and places them in inadequate habits.
So what is a kind, sensitive person to do when it appears there's an
animal in need? The National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society
and others provide these guidelines.
If you have to chase it to catch it, it does not need your help.
Any wild animal that appears tamed and friendly should be avoided.
Leave the babies alone if you don't know the parent is hurt.
If you find a wild animal (particularly a young one), do not feed it
force fluids into it.
If the animal is injured and needs help, place it in a warm, dark and
area to rest in an escape proof box with air holes. Call a wildlife
rehabilitator for help.
There's a threat of serious injury when people try to help an injured
animal, If the animal needs help then it is, by definition, in a stressful
situation and will try to flee. It will not hesitate to use claws, teeth,
talons or sharp beaks to defend itself. There is also the possibility the
animal is carrying an infectious disease. The safe thing to do is to call
wildlife rehabilitator or an FWC office for advice.
As for Spike, Thomas and Roman found some scrubland other gopher tortoises
call home and gave Spike a ride there. At last report she was doing fine,
living the tortoise life in south Hillsborough County.