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.
"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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith