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    Land-lubbing tortoise avoids sudden swim

    A man tells deputies he was trying to save the exotic pet turtle. But he ends up charged with attempted grand theft.

    [Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
    Tarpon Animal Hospital employee Brandy Panapolis, 22, admires Turtley Dude, an African spurred tortoise, outside the hospital Friday. She rescued the exotic land turtle Thursday from a 50-year-old transient man charged with trying to "free" the turtle by lobbing it in Lake Tarpon.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 28, 2002

    TARPON SPRINGS -- Free Willy, it wasn't.

    Edward Clint Willis told a sheriff's deputy that he wanted to liberate an exotic pet tortoise named Turtley Dude from its outdoor pen and set it free in Lake Tarpon.

    But there were a few problems with his plan.

    Willis, a 50-year-old transient, was intoxicated, Pinellas County sheriff's officials say.

    Lake Tarpon was more than a mile away.

    And Turtley Dude can't swim.

    "People think these turtles are water turtles and they're not," said Jennifer Andersen, assistant manager at the Tarpon Animal Hospital, where Turtley Dude and his companion, Turtley Dudette, were spending Thursday sunning themselves and grazing in an outdoor dog pen. "They'll die in the water."

    The turtles are two examples of the African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), which comes from the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. They're young, maybe 5 or 6 years old, have shells that are about as big around as salad plates and belong to veterinarian Dr. Sal Abbate. The turtles' names notwithstanding, the folks at Tarpon Animal Hospital aren't really sure if they're male and female.

    "We had a lady who breeds them come in and take a look at them, but she said they're too young to tell," Andersen said. Anyway, one's bigger, and that's Turtley Dude.

    Around noon Thursday, 22-year-old Brandy Panapolis, a receptionist and technician at the clinic, was pulling into the parking lot when she saw two men around the turtles' cage. One of them was holding Turtley Dude.

    "I pulled up and saw them messing with the cage and I thought, 'What in the world are they doing?' " Panapolis said. She said Willis yelled at her, but he and his companion walked away when another clinic employee took the turtle away from him.

    Pinellas sheriff's Cpl. John Davis found the men close by and brought them back to the animal hospital. The second man was let go because he didn't do anything. Willis was charged with attempted grand theft and was being held at the Pinellas County Jail Friday in lieu of $5,000 bail.

    Clinic employees said they hadn't ever seen Willis around before, but they thought he might have wandered over from the Anclote River Boat Club, a small, waterfront bar nearby.

    Bartender Luanne Brush said she didn't know Willis, but she does remember a couple of guys in the bar around midday Thursday. They weren't regulars, they were very drunk, and she had to tell them to stop bothering her dog, a small mutt named Queeney. She doesn't know where they went, but she wasn't surprised to hear that someone was arrested for trying to snatch a turtle.

    "You get in trouble," she said, "for messing around with animals."

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