Many people, tourists and locals alike, think they’re helping when they put turtles back into the water. But just last week, someone tried to put a gopher tortoise into the water and one viewer sent WINK News a video.
“Honestly these are completely different animals, they do not swim and they can drown and that’s the problem we’re having,” said Timothy Thompson, volunteer at Von Arx Wildlife Hospital of the conservancy of Southwest Florida.
Thompson thinks most people are trying to help, but they actually aren’t.
“People with the best intentions will mistake them for sea turtles and in fact think that they’re assisting and will take the small gopher tortoise and will put it in the Gulf of Mexico.” Thompson said. “And in fact the gopher tortoise does not swim, it will sink and if it inhales enough saltwater, and it has happened before, they will actually die.”
Matt Metcalf, visiting professor at FGCU says that the animals, whether they look like it or not, know what they’re doing.
“If someone sees it in a place where they feel it shouldn’t be a lot of times going to help it and save it. But a lot of times those animals kind of know what they’re doing already, so one of the best things to do is leave it alone,” Metcalf said.
Thompson says that it’s a reoccurring problem. “It’s sad because this really has been a problem. It’s not just this year, but it’s years in the past. Almost every single season this time of year we get baby gopher tortoises that have been put in the Gulf of Mexico,” Thompson said.
With such close proximity such a diverse animal population, experts say its important to know the differences.
“They have actually toes and they have a claw on each toe, so we’re all pretty certain that a sea turtle will have a flipper. So identifying these turtles is not that difficult,” Thompson said.
But the most important thing is to leave the rescuing to the professionals.
“Gopher tortoises are one of those, those are protected species here in Florida, so it’s recommended to not touch them in general. Same thing with sea turtles or any wildlife especially if you don’t know what they are,” Metcalf said.
Thompson adds that people should be more aware of such protections. “Our visitors and tourists should just be aware that our wildlife is very protected here. There’s organizations with very strict laws on handling any of our wildlife and if they have any questions they should call when our local wildlife hospitals.”