OCALA, FL—State welfare agencies expressed outrage Monday over the discovery that a local sea turtle had "deliberately and recklessly abandoned" her six unborn children on an Ocala beach last Thursday.
"This kind of behavior is shocking and inexcusable," said Peter Hume, director of the Florida Division of Youth and Family Services (FDYFS). "To deposit one's own children in the sand and expect them to autonomously hatch after a two- to three-week incubation period, instinctively crawl to the ocean and immediately begin using their flippers as fully functioning transportational devices in the quest for aquatic vegetation—it boggles the mind. It's almost unhuman."
The eggs, which appeared "weathered and malnourished" upon discovery, have been placed in foster care. State authorities have asked the Coast Guard to help in the search for the still-unidentified mother, whom animal-behavior experts believe is still in the area.
Stephen Varga, a frequent beachcomber in the Ocala area, witnessed the mother's act of gross criminal negligence. "She waddled inland along the shore, oh, 200 to 300 yards or so," Varga said, "and I remember thinking how suspicious the whole thing looked, the way she used her hind feet to carefully dig a shallow, gourd-shaped depression in a secluded section of coast, far removed from possible predatory attacks by terns, ospreys or other sea-birds. It gave me chills."
Varga said he considered contacting FDYFS, but decided he "didn't want to get involved."
The eggs were discovered by local lifeguards Sunday after one of the babies was heard using the vestigial egg-tooth on its snout to aid in the delicate process of breaking its hardened, leathery casing. A flipper-print found by police on one of the shells identified the mother as an Atlantic ridley, or lepidochelys kempi, widely regarded as the most neglectful and ill-fit species of all sea turtles.
If caught and found guilty, the mother turtle could face up to 30 years in prison.
One adult female tern, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she was acquainted with the fugitive turtle.
"I'm very surprised she would do something like this," the tern said. "The last time I saw her, she was already pregnant, and she seemed to be very excited about it—you know, her salt-excreting glands were working hard to ensure a fully desalinized in-vitro environment, her carapace had softened to facilitate easy cross-sand negotiation, that kind of thing."
Monday's incident marks the latest in a series of disturbing occurrences among Florida amphibians and reptiles. On May 4, a shingleback lizard was sentenced to six months in jail for what Broward County judge Raymond Voss called "repeated and willful indifference" toward its babies. More notoriously, last April, over 1,400 treefrog ova were eaten or fell off the branches of a Clearwater-area jonquil tree after being abandoned by their parents, who, like so many of the mothers and fathers in these cases, were no longer together.
"Sadly, there are a lot of 'serial parents' out there in the amphibious community who are having kids and then breaking up," Hume said. "Themselves raised in a non-nurturing, non-family environment, they in turn are ill-equipped to provide their own eggs with a caring, stable home."
"It's very easy to blame the turtles' depletion on human beings, who value their shells, hide, meat and oil," said Hume, noting that five of the world's six known species of sea turtles are endangered. "But the truth is, with the exception of the green sea-turtle, chelonia mydas, the sea-turtles are dying because of a terrible erosion of family values, something that's become rampant in our society as a whole."