■BY MARCY SHORTUSE – I’m sure most of you have heard social media mutterings regarding those kids from Manatee County who have appeared in multiple photographs and videos mishandling animals, fish and birds. They filmed themselves dragging a shark at a high rate of speed, holding endangered spotted eagle rays, one guy holding up a tarpon with his forearm through the gills, shooting fish, getting fish drunk, etc., etc., etc.
Most of you have heard the collective sigh with which the public accepts these guys as “spoiled, privileged children” who will never know the true bite of the repercussions of their actions because their parents have money and influence. Of course it’s true in many cases, because that’s the way of the world. Many people, though, are wondering if the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will sweep these questionable crimes under the rug once the general fervor dies down and people move on to another topic of conversation.
It’s hard for someone like me to be objective about something I call animal cruelty and mishandling, but I can give it a shot. Growing up around fishermen, I’ve always known a certain percentage of people who don’t think that using an animal for their own purpose is a problem, including random killing. If you caught a carp you didn’t throw it back in, you threw it up on the bank. People didn’t want them in local waters (not that you could ever get rid of them), so why let that carp continue to live if you catch it? People catch fish to make them into bait for other fish, so is that any different than using a dog as bait?
Did that get your attention? Are you asking yourself who would use a dog as bait? Some people do, apparently, and this wasn’t the first I had heard of it. If you didn’t know, the ringleader of the alleged sadists, a guy named Michael Wenzel, couldn’t stay off Instagram long enough to not pose with what appears to be a dead dog, while standing on a pier hash-tagging the fact this dog would soon be bait. He said he found it dead floating in a river, but for some odd reason a lot of people weren’t buying that story. I’ve heard of shark fishermen using small dogs as bait from time to time, as well as cats. I haven’t seen it done, though. But back to the question: Where do we draw the line as far as which animals are friends and which ones are food?
So maybe this guy was extracting a fishhook from a pelican’s mouth in the next photo he posted. Same goes for that little white bird with a black head whose neck he was holding so very tightly, smiling into the camera lens. Maybe when his friends posted a video of a shark they had dumped in a swimming pool, they were under the impression that the shark needed a little fresh water. He posted with a lot of animals, fish and birds, he posted videos of himself and his friends shooting fish with guns.
I am assuming he’s part of the elite group of asshats who really enjoy fully manipulating nature to their own personal whim, dominating and bending the two-legged, four-legged, finned and feathered to the fullest. There’s a lot of Jungian and Freudian speculation I won’t go into as far as the cause; we all know what heads are in those jars in the closet.
On the other side of the law from these guys, we have a group of people all dressed in uniforms who ride around in pretty trucks with fancy decals. They are paid by us – the taxpapers of the State of Florida.
Their mission is “protecting Florida’s natural resources and people through proactive and responsive law enforcement services.” Their motto is “Patrol, Protect, Preserve.” These guys go around the state and hang out at boat ramps and fishing spots, sometimes in uniform and sometimes undercover, to spot people taking home the wrong kind of out-of-season fish, or maybe the people caught too many fish, or they caught them with a net … or maybe the wrong kind of net.
These officers who enforce Florida’s wildlife laws make a whole lot of money for their organization, every day of every month of every year. A fine for possession of the wrong kind of fish, or for fishing in a nonallowed area, can run well more than $1,000. The list of surcharges, taxes and handling fees is very long on each of those tickets.
For someone who is ignorant of the law, getting one of those tickets can be life-changing in a very bad way: That ticket can mean temporary but serious financial problems. It can mean community service hours, and it can mean probation. It could even mean jail time.
Oftentimes the FWC doesn’t even mess around when it comes to breaking Florida conservation laws. If you go to their website, you’ll see the great lengths they go to in order to educate people on how to be respectful of wildlife.
One example I found is a page devoted to the study of fish mortality from angling. It shows the common causes of fishing-related fish deaths, and how even the best-intentioned angler can accidentally kill a fish he is intending to release. They talk about lactic acid buildup in the fish’s muscles and blood, the stress of capture, how you should only handle a fish with wet hands; they even show you how to relieve the pressure created by barotrauma.
In other words, they’re asking some anglers to be responsible enough to carry fish-stomach-venting tools around, but others are excused for dragging a shark behind a boat at 50 miles per hour, for abusing endangered species and for mishandling protected species? All while hash-tagging their posts #FWCsmostwanted?
But you want someone to pay an $800 ticket and do six months’ probation for a possession infraction that someone else on his boat accidentally committed?
This is where communication breaks down and confusion kicks in. Wenzel was investigated for this same type of behavior in 2015, and the FWC closed the case – no charges filed. Here we are two years later, and while these videos came out weeks ago, Wenzel and his buddies – people who are very identifiable in both the pictures and videos – are still being “investigated.”
It’s a little hard to stomach, considering I know people who have paid some hefty fines and been put on probation because they accepted a charge without struggle, because they didn’t have the time or the money to hire an attorney to get those charges pled down or dismissed.
An average person might logically think the FWC isn’t heartily pursuing charges on these guys because they know their parents have money, they know expensive lawyers will be involved and because they know the charges will be pled down to nothing, just for convenience. Why charge them in the first place? No money to be made in this instance, let’s move on.
Now people are making death threats against these kids, and I can almost guarantee you every person who has dealt with a hefty fine, court costs and disciplinary action from an FWC arrest for throwing a cast net that was a little too big are ready to pick up their pitchforks and torches as well. It doesn’t even make sense; there is no logic behind these laws or the people who are paid to enforce them. Even if you take legality out of the question aren’t you preaching about “ethics” on your own web site, FWC?
Just because the illegality of an act can be argued doesn’t make it even close to right. Just because you claim you “found” a dead dog doesn’t make it right to display it on social media and brag that you’re going to use it as bait (no, it doesn’t count as recycling). While it may not get you jail time it definitely makes you look like a hellified sociopath.
So FWC, while you were instructing Joe Citizen on how he should practice utilizing descending devices on deepwater fish because it’s “ethical” to burp them, and with the other hand writing him an $800 ticket for having one too many snapper, these guys were right up the road with their coke-snorting MTV buddies, bullying pelicans and eagle rays and planning their next social media photo shoot to show how cool hurting animals and breaking conservation laws for fun and profit can be.
Makes perfect sense to me.
Marcy Shortuse is the editor of the Boca Beacon