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Politics

Post Shark-Dragging, Sarasota Lawmaker to Push Legislation Punishing Animal Cruelty

August 3, 2017 - 4:30pm

Days after a video of several Florida fishermen dragging a live shark went viral worldwide, at least one Florida lawmaker has decided to act to bring justice to animal abusers in the Sunshine State. 

Two Manatee County men -- Michael Wenzel and Robert Lee "Bo" Benac -- are said to have posted a video of the incident on social media.

The 11-second video, which sparked a storm of controversy, shows the shark flailing furiously as it's dragged at high speed behind the powerboat. 

One of the men on the boat films the incident on his smartphone; all of the young fishermen seem amused as the shark is repeatedly catapulted into the air, crashing down on the water over and over again while the boat’s engine continues to roar. 

Public outcry over the video has grown in recent days, prompting more than 175,000 people to sign a Change.org petition demanding the men in the video perform community service hours, receive jail time for the act of brutality against the shark and lose their license to fish.

State lawmakers have mostly stayed mum on the issue, but one legislator is already pledging she will hold animal abusers accountable for their crimes, promising to push legislation next year to up the ante on the perpetrators and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

State Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, told constituents Monday she found the shark-dragging incident “unfortunate,” and vowed to fight back.

“If current law ... does not find this to be a prosecutable crime, I will present a bill this session that brings more clarity,” Miller promised her constituents on Facebook. The incident took place in Miller's district, and this issue of animal welfare has always been near the top of her agenda.

“I’ll definitely be proposing something,” she told Sunshine State News. “It’s really a testament to how lax the FWC has been over the course of decades that we in Florida are facing these horrible problems.”

Miller is no stranger to legislation fighting for animal rights. The cause, she explained, is one near and dear to her heart, giving a voice to the voiceless and protecting innocent animals that cannot protect themselves. 

What Miller was not prepared for, she said, was being somewhat of a “lone ranger” in the fight for animal rights.

“I’ve always been an animal welfare person, so when I got to Tallahassee I found there were not a lot of Republicans putting forth legislation on animal welfare,” she said Thursday.

Still, the freshman legislator vowed to push forward with bills she felt would make a difference on a statewide scale for suffering animals. This year she pushed a proposal to end shark finning, a practice in which fisherman will remove the shark's fins and often throw the fish back in the ocean to die. 

The fins are considered a delicacy and are used in soups popular in some Asian cultures.

Miller said she met with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to discuss the bill and was shocked to discover the FWC was not supportive of a bill to end shark finning -- something she considers an indicator of the commission's darker underbelly. 

“They were extremely reluctant,” she told SSN. “They said they were about ‘sustainability’ and [didn’t] believe this [was] really a problem.”

The bill that ultimately passed merely increased the penalty for shark finning in Florida. Fishermen still are allowed to “harvest” sharks and remove their fins onshore, though they can only do it in limited numbers now.

As a result of her first-hand negotiations with the FWC, part of Miller’s new proposal will create a top-down audit on the FWC and how the state agency handles animal cruelty issues. 

Miller said she would propose a clearer outline on animal cruelty, specifically focusing on marine life and defining which animals would be protected under state law. 

The Sarasota Republican lawmaker said she wasn’t hopeful the FWC, which has been charged with investigating the shark dragging incident, would be responsive to any legislation changing the status quo.

“It was very strange to me to sit down and have what I thought was a neutral meeting, but they were driven by special interests,” she said. 

In spite of the pushback Miller received from the FWC last year, it’s possible she could find an ally in her quest to thwart animal abusers in Gov. Rick Scott, who decried the shark dragging video earlier as “sickening” and “incredibly disturbing.”

In a letter sent to FWC Board Chairman Brian Yablonski, Scott urged the commission to review the state’s fishing regulations and state statutes to ensure “inhumane acts” were strictly prohibited and if committed, punished.

Yablonski responded, agreeing with Scott’s assessment on the horrific video, saying the FWC was investigating the matter.

“FWC Division of Law Enforcement investigators are working diligently to come to a lawful resolution in this case,” he said. “Florida is a sportsman’s destination and there is no place in Florida for these kinds of callous acts.”

FWC spokesman Rob Klepper told SSN Thursday an investigation into the incident was under way, but refused to provide further details.

The case, he said, could be a lengthy one. 

“Every investigation is different,” Klepper said. “Some take a few days, some take a few months. Some investigations take two years. It’s impossible to provide a timeline because there are so many moving parts.”

Some have argued the FWC’s reluctance to get involved in animal cruelty cases stems from the desire not to shut anyone out 

“They basically don’t want to set a legal precedent for fishing or harvesting to be a legal cruelty,” said Save the Tarpon founder and chairman Capt. Tom McLaughlin to the Miami Herald.

Miller said she hoped her legislation -- which she hopes to write in the coming months -- would begin a much-needed crackdown on animal abuse in Florida.  

“I think with enough downward pressure it will happen,” she said. “ I could put something forward and it’ll get a hearing ... it’s such a lightning-rod issue. We have a pretty good chance of putting something forward.”

 

Reach reporter Allison Nielsen by email at allison@sunshinestatenews.com or follow her on Twitter: @AllisonNielsen.


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Comments

I applaud Allison on a well-written article examining animal cruelty laws against the backdrop of the extraordinarily heinous, barbaric actions of these men. I also applaud Rep. Miller for her leadership and for being a proponent of animal protection. 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. Why is the FWC so lax when it comes to animal abuse? The answer is clear to those who have knowledge about their agenda, largely hidden from the public. Special interests? You bet. 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 profit? 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. 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 entire state that could have stopped the ill-conceived, immoral, and senseless massacre of over 304 Florida black bears in 2015. If that isn't animal abuse, I don't know what is. 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.

Wow,where to start without writing a book.First you can't blame the FWC for the callous acts of uneducated juveniles.The animal abuse laws should be Nation wide.Abuse is abuse,no matter how you look at it.I worked with the FWC for some 17yrs.and the general public in S.W.Fl. Working with animals is a 24hr a day job and teaching people about animal behavior is interesting,to say the least. Everyone has an opinion on these issues.The young men should be ashamed of themselves for their actions and should have some kind of repercussions.Otherwise there is no moral to this story.They need to admit there guilt,loose their fishing licenses,boating privileges,and be held accountable.Hopefully they will learn to respect our Natural Resources and the incredible place they call home. WE ALL HAVE TO TAKE A HAND IN PROTECTING OUR NATION,AND OUR ANIMALS!!! We do have a choice to be good or bad in our actions. What would you choose?

Allison, you have joined the club of fake news producers. Know what you are writing about. If you can't write without injecting your personal, emotional, uneducated viewpoint you should remove yourself from your job. Most people would not like to know how the food they are eating is produced. Shark finning is illegal in this country, banning the sale of shark fins will not stop this practice from happening around the world. Oceana has poisoned your mind too.

typical reactionary sabre rattling...should have been there all along.

Make sure there is a minimum fish size in this bill. I don't want my daughter getting jail time when she catches minnows in her sand castle pool then let's them die so she can hold a beach funeral. What about when you take a mini bat to a salmon and beat it on the boat? I'm gonna love to see the lawyers try to figure out what fish abuse is versus what is legal execution of fish. Personally I think tarpon fishing is animal abuse. Cause there is no real point other than the thrill of snagging a fish that you can't eat and can't even bring up to a boat for a picture. We should ban tarpon fishing as well. This is a fools errand.

And NOT teaching your daughter about RESPECT of life is okay? nvs.

You animal rights people can be a crazy breed. Some commercial fisherman catches about 10,000 fish in a net catch. DO you have 10,00 counts of criminal offenses waiting for him when he returns? Insane.

Overfishing and exploitation of "resources" is a real problem but this article was not about that.

This article and the overreactions are priceless. Dragging a shark. Thing a boat is bad. Not good. But it doesn't merit this faux social media outrage from the PETA drama queen peanut gallery. I've shark fished before. News flash. They usually die. And there are a bazillion of them in the gulf. And you cannot drive a boat without seeing 1000000 red snapper. Which should be caught killed and eaten by some of hear malnourished vegans.

Florida lawmakers are a disgrace when it comes to protecting animals or children. Horses and other animals are starved to death on a weekly basis. It's reported to the agencies that are supposed to investigate these cases and it's swept under the rug. Too much paperwork involved for them to care. The people that own the animals refuse to give them up and are never prosecuted. Other states would arrest them on site. No excuses. Vern Buchanan has done so much to change animal cruelty. I can't name anymore, probably because there aren't any.

I am very happy that finally someone up there will take the issue of animal abuse in this state more seriously. Between the actual abuse, and the lack of punishment, we don't know which is worse. Start getting serious about animal abuse and the punishments given to deal with it. If you don't think twice about abusing an animal, there's a pretty high chance that you don't have a problem abusing any defenseless being.

I totally agree with you, which is why outrage over these incidences is, in my mind, a good start. It's good to see that people are finally taking notice of atrocities that occur on a daily basis.

Representitive Miller should be proud that she's leading this action. Unfortunately, the herd of politicians in Tallahassee will play their political games, meanwhile the bad get badder! They used a boat to do their killing, so take away their boat for a start. It's time to teach ALL about RESPECT, for other humans, as well as animals, fish, all wildlife. Get a law powerful enough to enable the police or game wardens to securely do their jobs instead of hogtying them in foolish rules and regulations!

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