Accusations of animal abuse are piling up for several individuals suspected of filming themselves dragging a shark behind a speedboat last week.
Since the shark footage surfaced, members of the public have shared other disturbing photos and videos that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is now examining as part of its investigation of the incident.
One image shows a man opening a protected Goliath grouper’s mouth while another man pours beer down its throat. A different video captures someone funneling beer through a hammerhead shark’s gills and into another person’s mouth. Yet another video shows a man shooting at fish from a boat.
The FWC has not publicly identified the individuals involved in the shark speedboat video, stating on Facebook that “Since the investigation is active, we can’t confirm the identities of the individuals, and it is too early to speculate as to what, if any, violations took place in this incident.” The agency has also not confirmed whether the people in the additional images and videos are the same people who dragged the shark behind the boat.
However, social media users and local news outlets, including the Miami Herald, have identified two of the individuals from the shark video as Michael Wenzel and Robert Lee “Bo” Benac.
Mark Quartiano, known as “marktheshark” on Instagram, said he received the shark-dragging video from Instagram users “michaelwenzel” and “bearjew428.” The latter account features Benac’s name and includes photos that appear to show him. Screengrabs and captions of other posts showing apparent animal abuse are also linked with the “michaelwenzel” account.
Both accounts have since been deactivated.
Note: The video below is violent and disturbing.
Tom McLaughlin, a conservationist who started the nonprofit Save The Tarpon, has been following Wenzel’s fishing practices for two years.
In 2015, Save the Tarpon’s Facebook page shared photos from a social media account apparently belonging to Wenzel. Save the Tarpon’s post indicates that the man in the photos is not permitted to possess or harvest the fish he’s holding. (According to state law, tarpon cannot be removed from the water if they’re over 40 inches long.) One of the photos from the “michaelwenzel” account is brazenly tagged: #FWCsMostWanted.
State and federal officials previously investigated Wenzel in 2015 after photos appeared to capture him mishandling pelicans and a seagull. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed that investigation last January without filing any charges, the Miami Herald reported.
McLaughlin told HuffPost he had shared photos of Wenzel holding protected seabirds, spotted eagle rays and tarpon on his Facebook page after seeing Wenzel post them on social media.
“Within about 12 hours, it got a lot of interest ― not at this level, but a couple thousand shares on Facebook ― and his dad called us and tried to convince us that it was an isolated incident,” he said.
McLaughlin also said he submitted plenty of photos that documented Wenzel’s behavior to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2015 but said “it’s just continued to go on since then.”
There are instances that protected fish and birds can become accidentally caught, “but I think it’s about how you go about handling them,” McLaughlin said. “It goes from incidental wildlife interaction to abuse.”
“Unfortunately, it’s not a unique incident,” he added. “There’s actually a pretty good-sized group of kids that age in that circle.”
According to the Bradenton Herald, Wenzel’s father is Manatee County’s planning section manager, Robert Wenzel. The Miami Herald identified Benac’s mother as Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac.
Benac and Wenzel’s families did not immediately reply to HuffPost’s request for comment.
As of late Monday afternoon, an online petition demanding that the men go to jail and perform community service has collected more than 57,000 signatures. The petition also asks for the revocation of their fishing licenses.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) also spoke out against the shark video on Friday, calling for a review of the state’s fishing regulations “to ensure that such inhumane acts are strictly prohibited.”
“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,” Scott said in a letter addressed to FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski.
Jon Weiffenbach, an attorney for the men in the video, declined the Miami Herald’s request for comment on Friday. Weiffenbach did not immediately reply to HuffPost’s request for comment on Monday.
“None of the individuals in the video have been charged criminally and no one has been arrested,” Weiffenbach told the Herald. “I am friends with the families of the young men, but have no comment regarding the video in my capacity as an attorney.”