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Nancy Smith

Will Shark Video Propel Lawmakers to Get Tougher with Animal Abusers?

August 1, 2017 - 8:00am

Maybe some good will come from the heinous acts of animal cruelty against sharks and other creatures, including a pelican, mounted like trophies on social media last week by the fishermen responsible.

Could it be? 

Could the disturbing 11-second video that shows a shark being hauled alive behind a speedboat while the four men aboard laugh ... actually galvanize Florida lawmakers of both parties? Could it give them something important they can agree on -- that animal abuse laws in Florida need to be ratcheted up a few notches?

Posted a week ago, the oft-repeated video shows the shark hitting the surface of the water and flipping around before the cameraman turns the lens to show three others on the boat, laughing and pointing at the animal. One man can be heard saying, "Look, it’s already almost dead." 

The posting went viral overnight. Public outrage was immediate. So was the cry to sign a Change.org petition demanding the men responsible have their fishing licenses permanently revoked, serve time in jail and complete 1,000 hours of community service "to teach these young men to treat our Florida wildlife with respect."

And the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) jumped on an investigation. (The FWC case number is FWSW17OFF012872.) Though the agency was cautious -- some say too cautious -- and declined to release the names of the men aboard the boat, several angry people posted two of their names on Facebook. Manatee County residents recognized them as Michael Wenzel (the boat's pilot) and Robert Lee ‘Bo’ Benac. 

These are well-connected young men. Wenzel’s father is Robert Wenzel, Manatee County Planning Section manager; Benac’s mother is Betsy Benac, chairwoman of the Manatee County Commission. Neither parent returned my phone call.

I Beg to Differ

"These guys have pull," said Manatee resident David Bell. "It will be interesting to see if their mommies and daddies can pull strings and get them off."

Even with graphic video and incriminating photos galore, a criminal case isn't a sure thing. But the FWC faces big-time pressure now to file charges. The agency is under a spotlight.

I expect plea bargaining if the accused men get arrested at all, a small fine and a steady rain of I'm-sorrys. It's likely to disappoint and enrage the 4,000-plus who so far have signed Change.org's petition

The law as it's currently written doesn't call for a permanent revocation of a marine animal abuser's fishing license. I have no idea why not.

FWC spokeswoman Susan Smith did not return my call Monday; nor could I locate Wenzel or Benac, the two men identified. (Editor's note: FWC did connect with me two hours after this column was published, providing a statement from the FWC chairman.)

Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler said one of the men and his family, whom he did not identify by name, made a request for an extra patrol to watch their house following the social media outrage. There have been no incidents at the man’s home, but officers will increase patrols as they would if any citizen made a similar request, Tyler said.

Bo Benac, left, and Michael Wenzel
Bo Benac, left, and Michael Wenzel

In the meantime, the video and subsequent heartfelt expressions of disgust on social media caught Gov. Rick Scott's attention. The governor issued a letter Friday to FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski condemning the actions in the video and urging that regulations and statutes be reviewed "to ensure such inhumane acts are strictly prohibited."

Read Scott's letter to Yablonski in full by clicking on the "download" attachment in blue at the end of this column.

"While so many who enjoy Florida's incredible natural resources do so respectfully, some regrettably seek to irresponsibly and recklessly abuse them," Scott said in the letter. "This week, an incredibly disturbing video was reported by the media showing individuals senselessly dragging a shark behind their boat at high speed.

"The brutality and disrespect shown to this animal is sickening and I am sure that you share in my outrage over these individuals' heinous actions."

Yablonski did share in Scott's outrage and issued this statement:

"I, my fellow commissioners, and the men and women of the FWC, who are dedicated to conserving Florida’s precious natural resources for future generations, could not agree more with Gov. Scott’s powerful words.

"Each and every member of our agency is disgusted by the behavior shown in the video. FWC Division of Law Enforcement investigators are working diligently to come to a lawful resolution in this case.

"Florida is a sportsman’s destination and there is no place in Florida for these kinds of callous acts. We are eager to move forward with the governor's suggestion to review and strengthen regulations as necessary to help deter this type of behavior in the future.

"These individuals do not represent the sentiments and conscientious actions of millions of conservation-minded anglers around the world."

In fact, since the 11-second shark video was posted, more photos have surfaced showing the men allegedly involved mistreating wildlife, including holding various birds and displaying a mutilated shark. Two of the photos are shown on this page.

A second video also turned up -- of a man using a hammerhead shark as a beer bong. FWC is investigating that video, too.

In 2016, after a years-long lobbying effort, the FBI elevated animal cruelty to its own separate offense category. According to The Washington Post, the FBI now collects data on animal crimes the way it does for other serious crimes like arson, burglary, assault and even homicide, allowing police to monitor and tackle the extent of animal neglect, torture and other abuse.

Bo Benac shown in the middle
Bo Benac shown in the middle

The FBI defines cruelty to animals as “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning, or abandonment.”

There are four categories of crimes: simple or gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse -- like dog fighting and cock fighting -- and animal sexual abuse.

Keeping a registry of animal abuse offenders, as we do for sex offenders, is something every county and municipality in Florida should do. Research supports that animal abuse can be a precursor to future violent crimes. In the popular Netflix true crime series, “Making a Murderer,” the principal character burned his cat alive.

In fact, Tampa is ahead of a small but growing curve of local governments nationally that started an animal abuser registry in 2016. 

Maybe next session we'll see legislation that ups the ante for brutalizing the wildlife that is so much a part of our Florida signature. It's the most we can hope for.

What's crystal clear to me is, we shouldn’t ignore or coddle -- in fact, we shouldn't tolerate -- those who feel that animals are chattel to be mishandled or tortured. Abuse of animals is not an issue with two equally valid sides. There is only one side, and that is with the innocent.

In my opinion, one of the best cases Nobel Prize Winner Albert Schweitzer ever made was the one he made for man's obligation to "all living creatures." He wrote, “(The human spirit) has come to believe that compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.”

Most people with an ounce of decency understand this. Again, what is needed is for state and local government to mete out harsher penalties for those who would cause animals needless suffering. 

I hope we can let our outrage over the actions of these "shallow and soulless" fishermen (as the Miami Herald's Carl Hiaasen called them) be transformed into a tool for justice and judgment on those who fail to comprehend the wickedness of animal abuse. Florida has a chance to make a real statement.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

Comments

STOP, STOP, SHOCKING, BARBARIC, CRUELTY!!! STOP the torture animals!!!

I hunt and i have to agree , its for the sport. To say its for the meat is crazy. If you add up half the money we spend on hunting , its a lot cheaper to buy the meat. Its also not like we are out hunting because we are starving. Just saying. With that being said i also think this whole thing is crazy , its a damn shark for gods sake. Do you think he is going to worry if he causes you any suffering when he bites your leg off? Have you seen what animals do to each other?

It is a predator, for crying out loud! Who cares? What's next register them to vote?

You're a predator too. So let me put a hook in your mouth and drag you behind a boat.

Someone set the hook. Please!

I applaud you on a well-written and sorely needed article examining animal cruelty against the backdrop of the extraordinarily heinous, barbaric actions of these men. Our “civilized” society is in serious need of self-scrutiny and sweeping changes to the way animals are allowed to be treated, vis-à-vis our current knowledge and scientific evidence of animal sentience and emotion. One very glaring and disturbing sign that we have a long way to go is FWC’s response that they weren’t even sure any laws were violated, despite all the evidence of animal abuse. The average person might be surprised by that statement until they realize that laws in place to protect our pets and even livestock do not extend to wildlife. Our state government agency to which we entrust our wildlife serves the minority of those who wish to harm our wildlife. How can we have laws to protect wild animals from abuse if this agency’s agenda is to have them killed for their revenue? This fact might help answer the question of why the law as it is written does not call for the permanent revocation of their fishing licenses. State wildlife agencies are doing everything they can to increase retention (the R3 program: Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation) of their licensed hunters and anglers, at all costs, because their revenue is directly tied into the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. The issue of animal fighting such as dog fighting was also brought up. Why is dog fighting a felony in all 50 states, whereas animal fighting is permitted while hunting? Hunting hounds are permitted off leash to chase, terrorize, traumatize, torture, and kill our wildlife, and their owners protected against trespassing laws. It is not surprising that the FWC would agree with the governor. After all, the commissioners were appointed by him so they are kind of obligated to agree. What is questionable is the governor’s reaction. While I agree with him, one must keep in mind that he was one of only two people in the state who could have stopped the ill-conceived, immoral, and senseless massacre of over 300 Florida black bears in 2015. Yes, we need reform. We need sweeping changes and enforcement of new laws that protect animals. Wildlife ARE animals so it is only fitting that we extend these protections to them.

There are laws for animal abuse but they do noting in court in in cockfighting the law. Is One year or five years and they do noting but parole amazing

It's ironic that we only get concerned about Animal Abuse when some obvious Idiots (only) reveal themselves, on some video format. How can you ask Legislators about writing new Laws, when they are the largest of the Abusers??....Every time they allow / authorize new Commercial sites, or new Housing developments, they are taking away "Homeland" that other fellow creatures use and need to survive. When was the last time you heard about a "Moratorium" on Construction in this State?...........Bigger, and Better is what is viewed as Success in Florida. Meanwhile the Animals of the "Wild" have to come into our backyards to seek food, because we are destroying their Natural Habitat. When they enter our properties we discuss how to Kill them, instead of how to preserve more land for them, and build less for our own selfish needs....YET everyone gets upset when an "In your Face" animal abuse is demonstrated on video, but no-one complains when it is done by Legislative decree. If Florida wants to save our fellow "Room-mates" in this State, then STOP building on every little plot of land, that Evicts other animals from surviving alongside the Selfish Human.....What Hypocrisy.

You are so right, yet I still believe that the outrage that was sparked by the actions of these men was warranted.

This story is really bringing out the crazies. Yes, let's jail people for human progress. I'm sure you typed that sitting in the wilderness alone by yourself as you wipe with leaves and dine on bugs. I'm sure you have never used a pesticide, never eaten a piece of food grown on the land that originally was a forest, Warren an article of clothing manufactured from raw earth materials… Talk about ridiculous hypocrisy. Some idiots dragged a shark in the water. News at 11. I'm sure none of you rocket scientists also know that there were probably 20 sharks in Florida waters today run over by motor boats or crew ships. Yet the one steering the ship is it being threatened by the governor. Give me a break. Convenient drama queens.

What is your name?

The media will hire them for a show ... make them celebs

Fox News maybe...

Mark....be OK with me!

Thanks Trapper! Now, let's try to find a political weasel to go along with us!

Mark....the one great thing about the pondscum sucking political weasels is how cheap they are to buy.

Wildlife is part of our earth balance and these clowns have no understanding why animal abuse is wrong and may be an indication of this abuse later tranforming to other human abuse. These men should be punish and Americans should push for tougher laws

It is already a felony in the state to touch a sea turtle egg. thanks to this legislature. I think we have moved into "overboard "territory. We need laws against people defrauding the federal government over Social Security and disability benefits. Tougher laws that are enforced. Maybe we can take a crack at some of the human scum the drags America down before we have to address the mortal sin of touching a sea turtle egg or harming a shark.

I agree with Trapper, but I would also add (if okay with him) to allow people to somehow be able to walk by these clowns in their cell and all the visitors could laugh at them, while they're thinking about what they did to deserve what they receive!

Let's face it, they're rich & well-connected. I doubt much, if anything, will happen to them. If they were poor or didn't have their parents' connections they'd be thrown to the sharks (per se).

People who abuse animals should face the same punishment as if they'd done the same crime to a human being. If someone is torturing a life, then they should be tried and sentenced for torturing a life. Plain and simple. Other countries have stepped up to the plate and voted in animal equality. Why is America always so, /so/ far behind on these matters?

Darned if we don't seem to all agree on something. When was the last time that happened? Wonder if the boys saved up their paper route and lawn cutting money to buy the $30,000 boat? Or, more likely, tax payer dollars in some round about way bought it?

I am shocked that the parents of two of these animal abusers, and who serve on the Manatee County Planning Commission, have yet to publicly disavow their sons' actions. I'm left to believe that means they condone this type of abuse. How can I be expected to believe they care about the manatee's when they're silent on this? They both should lose their jobs.

because of who they are, politicians kids, I suspect nothing will happen. It will be interesting to see, hopefully there will be a follow-up...

If you're only going to ask for only 30 days then make sure that each of them are placed in a cell with the biggest ass busters in prison and see how they like. Oops....who knows they may like it, the little cowards. My guess is they will decide one day to take a swim in the ocean and that is where they will get their paybacks. Poetic justice.

Believe for the first time I agree with Mr. Warner. They ought to get 30 days in County for being A-holes and jerks. Give them a little time to think about how funny it was. What a good time it was.

Well said. How well people treat our creatures, big and small, is a prime indication of how they will treat everyone else. Brutalizing wildlife is unacceptable. Hammer them.

What do you think about hunting? What is the difference between deer hunting and someone killing a shark? How you treat the carcass? And please don't tell me you hunt deer for the meat. BS. Its the sport of shooting an animal. I'm sorry but I don't see the difference here.

I think think there is. Major difference being shot and being dragged around behind a boat, sure being shot must hurt but the average person hunting isn't going to shoot a deer a dozen times for fun and if they do then they are just as disgusting as the people in this video. Also how is hunting for meat BS? Is a person who shoots a deer now lying because they say it's for meat for them and their and/or families? Is it all one big lie and they say it's for meat while laughing and saying how great it is to shoot a deer for sport? So if hunting is the problem where are they supposed to buy it from the grocery store, what about factory farms? Another thing is when grain is harvested animals do die, and not little ones like mice sometimes deer do get hit and the grain is used in vegan and vegetarian foods. Also if all people are supposed to become vegans what if they can't due to medical reasons? They could raise their own animals but then we are back to shooting or dispatching animal for for meat again.

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