An illegally painted gopher tortoise discovered in Florida. (Courtesy of Barry Bundrum)

If you want to channel your inner artist, feel free to do so.

Just please, for the love of Michelangelo — or Leonardo, or Donatello or Raphael — don’t use actual turtles as your canvas.

That’s the latest message from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which recently posted photos of two illegally painted gopher tortoises to Facebook, along with a plea.

“Tortoises and turtles don’t need touch-ups!” the announcement read. “You can paint your house, a piece of furniture, a canvas or even your own fingernails or toenails, but you should never paint the shells of turtles and gopher tortoises!”

The state agency warned residents that painting turtles and tortoises can be harmful to their health.

To start with, a brightly painted shell makes the animals more easily spotted by predators.

In addition, painting the shells of turtles and tortoises “can hinder their ability to absorb vitamins they need from the sun, cause respiratory problems, allow toxic chemicals into the bloodstream and more,” the agency’s warning said.

Most Facebook commenters seemed befuddled as to why anyone would decorate wild animals.

“If people want to paint something, they should get a pet rock,” one said.

Under Florida state law, it is illegal to possess turtles or tortoises that have been painted in any way.

In addition, the gopher tortoise is considered a threatened species with extra protections in the state. They can live up to 80 years in the wild, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


An illegally painted gopher tortoise seen in Florida. (Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Karen Sirabian spotted a painted gopher tortoise across the street from her house on Captiva Island, a bridgeless island on Florida’s west coast.

“I had come up from a walk to the beach and the poor thing just stepped out of the grass,” Sirabian told The Washington Post.

She knew right away from the tortoise’s unnaturally shimmery aquamarine shell that someone had messed with it.

“People are fairly respectful of wildlife,” she said. “We’ve never had anything like that here. It was sort of jarring to see it.

“It was sort of artistically done, unfortunately. So I think they thought it would be cute, like painting their fingernails … but it’s really harmful to the creature.”

Barry Bundrum managed to take a photo of the tortoise before it wandered off. It was last spotted two streets away.

“Everybody on the island’s looking,” Bundrum said. “I can’t go down the street without anybody asking if I’ve seen the turtle yet.”

His photo wound up in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Facebook post.

The painted shells are the latest in a string of incidents in which humans have interfered with wildlife — often with unfortunate outcomes.

In May, a baby bison at Yellowstone National Park had to be euthanized after tourists put it in their car, thinking it was cold.

In February, an endangered baby dolphin in Argentina died after swimmers passed it around for selfies.

The Florida wildlife commission is asking residents to pick up the phone — not a paintbrush — and report any illegally painted turtle or tortoise. Residents should not attempt to remove paint from the animals themselves, said Deborah Burr, the commission’s gopher tortoise program co-ordinator.

Burr said the painting of turtle and tortoise shells is likely not common, though the commission has been receiving more reports of painted animals lately.

“We just started seeing it a little more frequently and thought that the outreach would be good,” she said. “When we did the Facebook post, there were quite a few people who commented that they had painted a turtle when they were young and they had no idea. It is actually a big deal.”

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