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Turtle burning draws disgust

A video showing two people lighting a turtle on fire in Hawley, Minn., has captured the attention - and disgust - of online viewers and animal rights advocates around the globe.

A video showing two people lighting a turtle on fire in Hawley, Minn., has captured the attention - and disgust - of online viewers and animal rights advocates around the globe.

Since July 1, nearly 1,700 people have signed an online petition urging Hawley prosecutor Kevin Miller to pursue the most serious penalty for the crime, which took place in late May.

In addition to the petition, Miller said he has received numerous e-mails, phone calls, letters and faxes regarding the case, showing what he called "obvious displeasure of what they saw on that video."

Joel Charles Ross, 18, 821 Joseph Street, has been charged in the case with cruelty to animals, which carries a maximum 90 day jail sentence and/or $1,000 in fines.

The Hawley man pleaded not guilty July 10 and will appear in Clay County Court on Monday before Judge Michael L. Kirk for a pre-trial hearing. A trial date is expected to be set at that time.


The video, which was posted online, depicts two males dousing a large female snapping turtle with gasoline and lighting a trail behind it, which engulfs the turtle in flames. After putting out the fire, they ignite the turtle again.

The two dance around the animal, laughing and yelling "what are you going to do about it," as the turtle tries to escape. A third individual operating the camera zooms in on the burning turtle and is heard encouraging the other two.

Whether the turtle survived is still unknown, as it has not been found.

"We have nothing to indicate that it's not (alive)," Miller said.

The other two individuals involved are juveniles and are being handled by Clay County, according to County Attorney Ken Kohler.

Assistant County Attorney Cheryl Duysen said she could not comment on whether the two juveniles involved have been or will be charged.

Norreen Dickson, co-owner of an animal shelter in Houston that deals with turtles, said she was so outraged by the video that she started the online petition as soon as she saw it.

In the past three weeks, the petition has gained signatures from places as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom.


The petition asks Miller to aim for the maximum penalty, order psychiatric evaluations and counseling for Ross, bar him from future contact with animals in Minnesota and pay medical expenses and restitution if the turtle is still alive.

Miller said he plans to order counseling for Ross, if convicted, although he doesn't plan to bar Ross from being around animals.

"Not only is it a question of whether we can order that or not, it's how practical trying to enforce something like that would be," he said.

Minnesota law states that if convicted, a restriction can be imposed upon the individual banning them from owning or controlling an animal during their probation.

If convicted for this misdemeanor, Ross would be on probation for one year.

In the video, Ross is depicted pouring the gasoline on the turtle both times, with a boy igniting it each time and extinguishing it once. At one point, Ross turns to the camera and describes how the turtle wants to be lit on fire.

The turtle is believed to have returned back to water after the incident.

Dickson said she believes the turtle was on land to lay eggs. She's unsure if the turtle would have survived the incident because the animal's shell, attached to its skin, heats up quickly.


The person answering the phone at Ross' home said he was not speaking to media.

Police became aware of the incident after Hawley Sgt. Thomas Taylor received an e-mail with a link to the video, a Clay County District Court report said.

After viewing the video, Taylor recognized Ross and one of the boys and realized it was filmed in Hawley.

Ross and the two juveniles admitted to lighting the turtle on fire, the report said.

In addition to the online interest, several people also have written letters to the editor of The Forum, sharing their opinions on the case.

One letter, from a Minneapolis attorney who represents victims of sexual harassment and abuse, called the incident worse than gang rape in her July 10 letter.

"If only the death penalty was available for these disgusting examples of human scum," Lori Peterson wrote.

She also urged people in Hawley and the surrounding area to contact authorities and push for the harshest penalties for the offenders.


The video was taken down from its original posting, although People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have added information about the case and the video to a section of its Web site that posts similar incidents.

Kristin DeJournett, a PETA cruelty case worker, said the organization has seen similar incidents in the past.

Miller said animal cruelty cases such as this are rarely seen in this area, adding that most involve lack of shelter or food.

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist, who also has received pressure to pursue the case, said this was the first animal cruelty case he had seen of its kind.

Bergquist said his office has looked into the matter, but Hawley is handling it.

"We looked at every angle possible to make sure that it was all covered," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541

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