A world-renowned expert has testified in an animal cruelty case that the blacktip shark that was dragged behind a boat in a viral video was dead before it was dragged.
The Viral Video
In late July 2017, a viral video of three Florida boaters dragging a shark at high speed went viral on social media. The video showed a shark tied to a rope being violently dragged behind a boat at a high rate of speed. The video caused public outcry by animal activists and prompted an investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In the video, one of the men appears to say “look it’s almost dead,” as he points to the shark that is flopping behind their speeding boat.
Following an investigation, Michael Wenzel, 21, Robert Lee Benac, 28, and Spencer Heintz, 23, were each charged with two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty. Wenzel and Benac also face a misdemeanor charge of illegal method of taking a shark. A separate video taken earlier that day showed Wenzel shooting a black-tip shark in the left side of the head near the gills with a .38 caliber handgun while Benac pulled it close to the boat, according to court documents. The charges carry penalties of up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines if convicted.
After reviewing the case, the Office of the State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit decided to dismiss the charges against Heintz. Sammecia Bagley, spokeswomen for the state attorney’s office said, “Based on additional case files that were presented, they didn’t have sufficient evidence to proceed with charges.”
Expert Witness Testimony
During the investigation, investigators showed the video to three shark experts, who all concluded the shark was still alive during the incident. The experts told investigators that they saw the shark making voluntary movements, which indicated that it was alive while being dragged, but they couldn’t say with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.
However, two defense attorneys have reported that one of the state’s experts has now testified that the shark was dead at the time of the incident.
Stephen Kajiura of Florida Atlantic University is a world-renowned shark expert who testified on behalf of the state. Kajiura holds a Ph.D from the University of Hawaii and is a professor of biological sciences at FAU.
Kajiura watched four or five videos of the trip and testified that the blacktip shark was dead before it was dragged behind a boat. When Kajiura had given his first deposition, he had only seen one video of the incident.
Attorney Charles Britt III, who represents Michael Wenzel, said, “The plain language of the statute is that it has to be alive.” The relevant animal abuse statute reads in part, “A person who intentionally commits an act to any animal … which results in the cruel death, or excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering, or causes the same to be done, commits aggravated animal cruelty.”