Walt was rescued from the parking lot of a veterinarian hospital in Walton County.
PANAMA CITY — Nature enthusiasts on Wednesday morning took a ride in a covered wagon to see “Walt” the gopher tortoise’s release into his new home at the Panama City Beach Conservation Park.
A starter burrow had been dug for the waif tortoise, the first of an anticipated 250 displaced tortoises that eventually will make the park their home.
Walt was rescued from the parking lot of a veterinarian hospital in Walton County. For the five weeks since, he had been holed up in an office at the city’s Parks & Recreation Division office.
On Wednesday, onlookers stood by a fence and watched as Walt was laid down at the edge of the hole.
The tortoise poked his head slightly in the air.
He didn’t move an inch.
“This is the type of area they will live in and thrive in,” said Dale Colby, parks and recreation resources supervisor.
Walt eventually crawled into the hole after the group left the scene and walked to another starter burrow, where another displaced tortoise whose shell had been crushed by a car was released. This one crawled in immediately. The second tortoise had been living at Kritter Inc. but lost its home when Hombre Golf Course began developing a hole on the property, said Lisa M. Mabry, Kritter Inc. wildlife rehabilitator.
The conservation park, permitted by the state, is the first in North Florida to take in waif tortoises.
A waif gopher tortoise is one that has been removed from the wild but is not associated with a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation-permitted relocation effort. They generally are from unknown sites, so they cannot be returned to their original location.
The conservation park has set aside 8 acres for the waif program, aided by a $2,000 grant from the Ironman Foundation, and 60 acres for a separate gopher tortoise relocation site, where threatened tortoises are brought from development sites. The tortoise preserve also will have an educational benefit: Students will learn about it during tours of the park, and information kiosks will dot the trail alongside it, Colby said.
“We can have over 250 gopher tortoises on this site one day,” Colby said. “We’re real excited.”
The burrows dug up by the tortoises, which can be 40 feet long and 8 feet deep, are used by 360 species.
Arlo Kane, FWC regional planning services coordinator, said FWC is grateful to the conservation park, as it’s not easy finding sites for tortoises.
“We don’t have nearly enough waif sites, so this is great,” Kane said.