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A 7-inch, eight-legged stinging intruder

One by one, the three cats died, inexplicably. No evidence of anything.

First it was Kellie Cat, then Momma Kitten and finally Gray Kitty, all in a month.

On Monday, the prime suspect emerged from a mound of dirt behind the National Auto Service Center.

It was black, 7 inches long with eight legs and a long stinger.

One of the workers sprang into action.

"He took the shovel and he went and got a chemical," said Jeanette Hannett, who has owned the service center at 7860 49th St. N for 23 years. "I'm not sure what he used."

Whatever it was, it worked.

The dead scorpion was on display an hour later in the office.

John Taylor, manager of Petland in Largo, said after looking at a photograph of the arachnid that it appears to be an emperor scorpion.

The genus is not native to Florida but was imported here about 80 years ago, he said.

This one is "on the big side," he said. "They probably have no problems killing a cat."

Emperor scorpions have become increasingly popular as pets, he said.

"We can order them," Taylor said, adding that they sell for about $15.

And their diet? Crickets, meal worms and lizards.

"One this size probably will eat small mice," Taylor said. "Their sting hurts too. You get sick for a little while. I took one on my middle finger once. I was sick for three hours or so, like a really bad hangover."

Later Monday, worker Steven McCallie planned to return to the automotive center with heavy boots and a light, hoping to unearth what he suspected was a nest of the scorpions.

The three cats, meanwhile, have been put to rest.

Most of the workers are "softies" that enjoy the cats that come and go, said Hannett.

A worker buried the cats and marked their graves with small wooden crosses.

"You're in God's hands now," one cross says.