Mock Turtle Scoop

First off, The Spike wants to thank all of you who were truly moved by the plight of the five baby desert tortoises in the path of the new Arizona Cardinals stadium, as reported last week in "Super Bowl V," a story by freelance contributor Rubén Oman.

The story, which pictured the tiny turtle babies on the cover, revealed the efforts by the environmental group Sonoran Desert Conservancy and its maniacal but charismatic leader, Ogden Farrell, to stop construction of the stadium through court action, thus jeopardizing the City of Glendale's hopes to bring the Super Bowl (and super bucks) to that city in 2008.

Even more dastardly, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill -- who could not be reached for comment for that story and, in fact, still hasn't bothered to call us about it -- tried to hide the fact that an endangered species was found on the property and that then he uprooted the babies under cover of darkness.

Within hours of the newspaper hitting the streets last Wednesday, calls and e-mails to Farrell, the conservancy, New Times, and even The Spike, started rolling in.

"I read the article today in New Times about the tortoises, and I wanted to let you know that I will do anything to help. Whether it be searching for them or a petition, anything," a woman who works for Bank of America told Farrell's voice mail.

Besides those genuinely sincere calls to Farrell, The Spike hears that local environmental groups like the Sierra Club received calls from people wanting to help out. One suggested that it might be in order to conduct an official tortoise survey out there in Glendale.

The City of Glendale even called the state Department of Game and Fish to find out just what the rules are regarding the species.

It does The Spike good to see that people in this Valley really do care about helpless if homely creatures such as the desert tortoise. Your hearts are absolutely in the right place.

Even if, and The Spike is sorry to have to break this to you, your brains are not.

People: This was all a joke, our way of using satire and parody to foster a little bit of community discussion on issues of major import here in the Valley. Like why are we spending so much of the taxpayers' hard-earned cash on the worst football team in America? The timing: Hey, it's Super Bowl season.

The Spike admits that the story does read, at least at first, like it could be true. Authors Tony Ortega and Paul Rubin (their real names) wrote a brilliant spoof. And frankly, no one who responded to the story put it past the Bidwills to scoop up some tortoises, haul them off to another site (or worse!) and then try to cover it up.

But, c'mon, folks, surely no one believed the assertion that the Cardinals' losing season is being blamed on the team's angst over the plight of the poor little baby turtles. Or that running back Thomas Jones, who told everyone he'd injured his hand reaching for a phone (uh-huh), actually hurt it when he slammed his fist into a locker, so upset was he over the Bidwills' treatment of the tortoises.

Ah, but they did. Even those who should have known better.

"I am a herpetologist (reptiles and amphibians) with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service here in Phoenix," writes Jim Rorabaugh, in a letter to New Times. "I am a co-author of a chapter on conservation of the Sonoran Desert tortoise in The Sonoran Desert Tortoise, a book published in 2002.

"I was amazed at the Super Bowl V' story. Was all of that made up? The stadium site is an ag field that is completely unsuitable as desert tortoise habitat (if there are tortoises there, someone put them there, and they will not survive for long). The article also makes reference to an Arizona Lesser Salamander' and the Southwest Rare Reptile Preservation Act.' I assure you, neither of those exist in any reality of which I am aware.

"In regard to the salamander,' the article goes on to say that it was reclassified as a reptile, and that the Corps of Engineers reconfigured the flow of the San Pedro River to accommodate the animal. That is all total fiction. Does no one check the validity of these articles?"

Thanks, Jim, for pointing that out.

The Spike also liked this rant to Ogden Farrell from a 63-year-old Phoenix man who introduces himself as a native Arizonan. Unfortunately, The Spike only has room for selected excerpts:

"First, let me say that I don't care one whit about Bill Bidwill or his ownership of the Cardinals. We all would have been better off if he had never come to town.

"Having said that, however, the underpinning of the New Times story is the stadium itself. All residents of Maricopa County have suffered through the saga of the stadium -- from the Tempe site-location mess to John Long's efforts to prevent the construction of the stadium. Millions of tax dollars were wasted when the TSA and the Cardinals were forced, correctly, I might add, to relocate the stadium from its initial river-bottom location. Millions more dollars have been spent in the site location and preparation work in Glendale.

"As taxpayers, we have resolved ourselves to the construction of the stadium -- for good or bad. Now you come along and, in the guise of attacking the alleged actions of the Bidwills, you intend to use whatever legal or extra-legal means are available to block the construction of the stadium itself . . .

"What we are talking about here are the alleged wrongful acts of the Bidwills in removing the tortoises from the stadium site. If these acts are proven to have been committed, then the Bidwills will pay the consequences. The people who should not have to pay the consequences are the taxpayers of Arizona in suffering any more delays in the construction of the stadium.

"But, as you are quoted as saying: It's time to draw a line in the sand. No stadium should be built until we know what happened to these tortoises. The public has a right to know.' The logic of that statement escapes me, but then I have never known environmentalists of your ilk to worry about logic. . . . I would characterize you and your organization as absolutely irresponsible, and your irresponsibility is demonstrated by your stated intended action to block the construction of the stadium.

"I am not completely sure yet what your agenda is, but I know for sure it includes personal aggrandizement. If you can cause the Bidwills to be, worst case, convicted of some criminal act and forced to sell their team, how in God's name does that satisfy any public purpose? If, as you have stated, your agenda is to enhance public awareness of protected desert animals, it is perhaps the most egregious case of overkill I have ever seen."


Still, The Spike thinks the author of that massive missive may have a point about some environmental groups. And The Spike is not talking here about the Sierra Club's Sandy Bahr, who for days tried to convince her greener cohorts that the story clearly was a hoax. "The tortoise mating thing was quite a hit with many of our folks," she says. (See picture, this page.)

No, The Spike is talking about Michelle Harrington from the Center for Biological Diversity, which is usually one of the smartest and most formidable environmental organizations around. Harrington called New Times to report that no one in the environmental community had ever heard of Ogden Farrell or the Sonoran Desert Conservancy. (Again, duh.) When she finally realized she'd been had, she complained that New Times' "stereotyping" of conservationists had set the movement back years. "What is this going to do to our efforts for the Endangered Species Act?"

The Spike, which has gotten many press releases and courtesy calls from the center just before it hauls some hapless rancher or developer into court, thought this statement by Harrington was pretty funny, too: "Our first thing is not to go out to the newspapers and scream that something is wrong. It's to go to the officials and discuss the situation."

And the capper from this savvy Center staffer? "Did you get authorization from the Bidwills to run this?"

But the best (as always) is the press itself. For a day or so, both Ogden Farrell and Rubén Oman were hot properties for intrepid reporters trying to beat each other to the scoop. "I read the story in today's New Times . . . and wanted to chat with you further," Dateline NBC producer Joe Delmonico told Ogden Farrell's voice mail.

"Wondering if the story in New Times is fake or true," said Channel 8's Mike Salcedo, in his search for Ogden Farrell. "I'm hoping to God it's true."

KTAR. The Arizona Daily Star. The East Valley Tribune (note to city editor Chris Coppola: Learn to use the phone, bud. Every time you called, your amusing background conversations with people around you were recorded by Ogden Farrell's voice mail.).

And then there's Channel 3. Which has committed the classic case of what we in the biz like to call "rip and read."

Specifically, according to The Spike's sources, some relatively new "executive producer" for the 10 p.m. newscast. It was apparently his (very bad) idea to simply take the story and broadcast it as if it were the station's own work.

That's right. No crediting New Times. Just the straight scoop that the Sonoran Desert Conservancy was seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the stadium because of the tortoises. "We're going to continue to follow this story and bring you the latest as it develops," late-news anchor Liz Habib told tens of thousands of viewers.

The Spike hears that both the Bidwills and the Tourism and Sports Authority were on the phone within minutes, chastising the station for being taken in by the New Times hoax.

So, The Spike would like to apologize to Habib, who had to take the fall publicly the next night for her producer, and admit that the station had been had.

And that, The Spike thinks, is the perfect gotcha.

Spike us! E-mail [email protected] or call 602-229-8451.

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler