An announcement asking for help in identifying two men suspected of cutting a pelican’s gullet and then pulling the tissue over its head in the Upper Keys has sparked considerable attention to the situation since being posted last week.
State wildlife officers released surveillance footage on Facebook of two suspects who allegedly maimed the bird on the evening of March 8 at the Tea Table Relief Bridge in Islamorada. The two men appear to be carrying fishing poles in the video.
Passersby saw the bird and alerted authorities. It was brought to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier and euthanized. The rehabilitation center’s executive director, Jordan Budnik, said that was all that could humanely be done for the animal.
“I’m absolutely appalled,” Budnik said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Police are still searching for the suspects. Law enforcement with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are handling the case. Bobby Dube, an officer with the FWC, said a few suspects have been identified, but he could not release names at the time. He added that progress is being made in the case.
“Any time you see anything like this, it’s very disturbing,” Dube said. “Not just as a law enforcement officer but in our community, but that someone would harm an innocent bird like this.”
Asked what would motivate someone to commit such an act, Dube said, “I wish I knew. I just don’t think they’re right in the head to do that to an innocent animal.”
Budnik said some motivation may come as retaliation against the birds for stealing a catch or being a general nuisance. Injuring or killing pelicans is an ongoing issue, according to Budnik and Dube. Budnik has seen birds come in with slashed pouches and some come with beaks bashed in. Dube recalls a few in the Lower Keys that had their gullets cut a few years ago.
Budnik said fishermen are not always to blame, since many in the Keys have great respect for wildlife, but that some people do not have the same compassion for pelicans as they would have for a common household pet like a cat or dog.
The post asking for help identifying the suspects has been shared thousands of times on social media. Hundreds of comments have been posted expressing disgust and remorse. The bird rehabilitation center posted graphic pictures of the pelican after it had been euthanized, its head covered in flesh from its gullet.
The center started a fund to raise a reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspects. It quickly exceeded the $4,000 goal and currently sits at more than $6,000. Budnik said a fund has also been started by the FWC and at least one other by private citizens. She estimates the total reward for information is around $12,000.
Gene Robinson, of Key Largo, made a donation of a few hundred dollars to the rehabilitation center’s fund. He said the night after he heard about the maiming, he didn’t sleep.
“It’s sick,” he said. “Can you imagine how painful that would be? What that pelican went through?”
Budnik said that the feedback from the community has been “explosive” and that since posting the pictures on Facebook, her phone has been ringing non-stop. The outpouring of support has been mostly positive, she said, although a few people responded with a degree of nonchalance toward the bird’s suffering, saying “it’s only a bird” or “it deserved it.”
In a place like the Keys, Budnik says the community is close to nature and connects easily with the environment. For that reason, she believes violence toward animals will have a deep impact on people who live here.
“You’ve got people like the fishermen who go out every day and love these animals and when they see something like this, it’s appalling and there’s no need for it,” she said.