Few cases of animal harassment have received as much international attention as the shark that was dragged behind a fishing boat in Florida earlier this year. The disturbing viral video drew immediate public outcry, and has been the subject of a lengthy dual investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and local law enforcement.

Now, after a four-month-long inquiry, officials have finally reached a decision: the men involved have been charged with two third-degree felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty.

Shocking video of the incident shows the predator being pummelled in the wake of a speedboat while onlookers gawk and laugh.

The findings against South Florida residents Michael Wenzel, Robert Lee Benac and Spencer Heintz were announced in a joint press release on Tuesday. In addition to felony charges, both Wenzel and Benac also face a misdemeanour count for using illegal methods to take a shark. 

"As we've said since this video and other images came to light, these actions have no place in Florida, where we treasure and conserve our natural resources for everyone," said FWC Chairman Bo Rivard. 

It's not clear whether the trio have expressed any remorse for their actions since – at the time of posting, they could not be reached for comment.

According to a July interview with The Washington Post, the video (along with photos of the animal's subsequent injuries) was initially received by shark fisherman Mark "Mark the Shark" Quartiano on Instagram, sent to him by someone he suspects was aboard the vessel. Quartiano has taken more than a bit of heat from experts for his own illegal fishing practices, and it seems possible that the suspects (or their supporters) were hoping for some approving recognition from a media influencer. What they got, however, was public condemnation. Quartiano called the video "one of the most horrific things" he had seen in 50 years of professional sport fishing.

Many commentators, meanwhile, perceived the incident as an intentional ploy to "troll" conservationists.

There are very few animal-cruelty charges on record for crimes involving fish, and the recent decision has garnered support from Florida Governor Rick Scott.

"I was outraged by the sickening video of a shark being horribly abused earlier this year," he said in an official statement following the charges. "Florida has no tolerance for this mistreatment, and I am proud of the hard work of FWC law enforcement during this investigation to hold these individuals accountable for their horrific actions."

Officials have expressed gratitude for the public's support and patience during the investigation, which involved "exhaustive research" into the suspects' social media activity and criminal records, as well as interviews with top fisheries scientists and shark biologists

According to local reports, all three suspects turned themselves in to law enforcement and have since been released on bail. Third-degree felonies of this nature are punishable by up to five years in prison or fines of up to $10,000, so the case promises to serve as a high-profile cautionary tale to potential copycats.

"It is our hope these charges will send a clear message to others that this kind of behaviour involving our fish and wildlife will not be tolerated," said FWC. 

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