Four years ago, two vandals released JR, a great horned owl, from his cage at McGough Nature Park.
The subsequent search for JR and the relationship between the owl and his caretaker, Joel Quattlebaum, created headlines.
Now, their story is being turned into a movie, Turtle Tale, told from the viewpoint of the many turtles at McGough.
"It's the first movie contract in the city," Largo parks superintendent Greg Brown said. "I thought it was a cool idea. Obviously, the bird got a lot of attention."
The movie is being made and produced by Totem Films, a Clearwater company that does commercials and develops local projects. The plan, said Luc Campeau, the company's consultant and supervisor of productions, is to sell the film on the open market for national distribution.
Turtle Tale was Campeau's idea. Campeau said he and his son, Samuel, who is now 11, used to go to McGough to see the turtles. During that time, they often saw JR and Quattlebaum and watched the rapport between the two. Then one day, when Campeau and Samuel visited the park, they discovered JR was gone. They watched the subsequent search.
"That was the drama," he said.
Campeau kept the story in the back of his mind and, early last year, contacted Largo about doing a movie.
"We are doing the story for these kids that like turtles, that like animals," Campeau said.
Largo agreed and opened McGough and other city facilities to Totem.
While the movie is based on JR's story, it's not factual. Campeau said the film is "fiction inspired by the owl story."
For example, Quattlebaum, who's now a Largo police officer, is male. In the movie, the character is a woman, played by Mary Rachel Dudley. (Quattlebaum has a walk-on part as one of the police officers who come when the alarm is sounded that JR is missing.)
And, JR, a male horned owl, is being played by Matilda, a female barred owl. That's because the two great horned owls in McGough "aren't as photogenic" as Matilda, said Brown. One is angry looking and the other has a wing that sticks out.
"Everybody falls in love with Matilda when they go down to the center," Brown said. "Matilda's just beautiful."
As for the ending, Campeau isn't saying.
In real life, JR didn't come home. That was a surprise to Quattlebaum and others who weren't sure he could make it in the wild because of his issues with food. Owls catch live prey, like mice, to survive. But when Quattlebaum would put a live mouse in JR's cage, he'd run to the other side of the cage. He fed JR dead mice that had been frozen.
"It's unusual for a top predator to run away from something he's supposed to be eating," Quattlebaum said.
So, when JR was let go, Quattlebaum cut classes at St. Petersburg College and camped in the park trying to find him and catch him. Quattlebaum caught sight of him a couple of times, but was never able to get him. He recognized the owl because he still had one of the leather strips on his leg that were used when Quattlebaum took him for walks.
"He liked to chew them off," Quattlebaum said. "I presume they annoyed him.
One day, Quattlebaum saw JR and saw a pile of owl droppings beneath him. An analysis indicated JR was eating. So they decided to let him go.
"He had no reason to be in captivity," Quattlebaum said.
Brown said the news that JR could survive on his own was welcome: "We thought the bird was going to die. Silly us. . . . He proved us all wrong."
Contact Anne Lindberg at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes.