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Not even an empty shell is left

Published Dec. 2, 2006

In the wilds of Wimauma, off a road that runs through farmland and jungle, there sits a modest double-wide inhabited by 29 turtles and tortoises, four snakes, one bearded dragon and a very big dog.

Living precariously among them is a quiet lady named Kim Inzerillo, who has happily tended to her kingdom for quite some time.

Until May.

That's when it all fell apart, when Kim's eyes filled with tears and her mind was flooded with awful thoughts of turtle soup and roadkill and a mysterious silver SUV.

* * *

Kim met Sally in 2001. Sally looked bad back then. Unhealthy.

Her shell was turning bumpy from malnutrition. She refused to eat collard greens and arugula unless Kim sprayed them with strawberry flavoring.

She came from Turtle Homes Rescue, a nonprofit that helps mistreated pets. The rescuers found Sally living in a 10-gallon tank somewhere in New Jersey. She had grown so big she couldn't turn around.

Apparently the woman who owned Sally didn't know Sulcatas - African tortoises - can grow to be 100 pounds.

At first, Sally wanted only spaghetti. It took weeks of training for Kim to get her on a healthy diet.

She lived in Kim's back yard, and any time the door swung open, Sally raced in. If Kim wasn't watching, she'd turn to find Sally eating the cat's food.

Sally had a blackish-green shell and it seemed like she always had a piece of grass hanging out of her mouth.

Kim didn't have her kingdom back then. She lived with only one other turtle, her first, Spartacus.

He was bigger than Sally and a shade lighter. The two hit it off.

"He liked to mount her," Kim said. "A lot."

Kim took the two to the Great American Teach-Ins at the elementary schools in Ruskin and laughed as the kids shrieked when she took them out of the box.

Not long ago, Kim brought home another, smaller male. She couldn't decide on a name, so she's been calling him The Boy.

As Kim's kingdom grew pet by pet, Sally and Spartacus spent their days walking the perimeter of a big grassy pen in the back or lying in the shade of their little turtle home.

In the evenings, when the sun set, Kim would come outside with greens and the tortoises would scoot close and grunt and burp as they enjoyed dinner.

And all was good.

* * *

It happened on a Sunday. Kim and her boyfriend, a computer programmer named Mark Illum, returned from an overnight trip to find a tortoise in the yard, near the road.

At first, Kim was excited. She thought another tortoise had simply wandered up. But her excitement soon turned to fear.

It was Spartacus!

They scooped him up and raced to the back yard, past the boat and the barn, to the tortoise pen. The gate stood open, the rope loose.

The Boy was still inside, thank God. But where was Sally?

They scoured the property, parting tall grass and calling her name. Then they jumped in the car as the questions came: How long was the gate open? How far could a 30-pound tortoise go? Did someone steal Sally?

They checked the woods and ditches along Carlton Lake Road. They searched for hours. Kim began to cry. Mark put fliers at the end of the road.

Before long, word started to trickle in. A neighbor said she saw a silver SUV in the driveway that night. But who owns a silver SUV? Could it have been Kim's sister's husband's ex-wife?

Then came a call from another woman. She said she saw Sally in front of the house that Sunday morning. Moments after she stopped, a man in a pickup pulled up.

"Them make good eatin'," the woman recalled the man saying.

The woman told them she put Sally in her car - for protection, really - and was chatting later with a neighbor at the nearby Winn-Dixie when a man overheard them. He said he could provide a good home for the tortoise.

She didn't know his name. Nor did she know his address. Just Tampa.

Mark and Kim plastered the Winn-Dixie with fliers thinking maybe the man would return. They took out a classified ad in the Tampa Tribune.

Weeks turned into months. Last weekend, Mark taped fliers on the front doors at Tampa Reptile Mania at the State Fairgrounds. He thought for sure the Tampa man would be there, or someone would know something.

Lost Large Sulcata, it said. Reward.


* * *

Kim prays for Sally. She thinks about her every day. Sometimes she thinks about the worst.

"I just hope that the guy who took her isn't a turtle-eater," she said, standing in her kingdom the other day. "I just hope she's okay."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (813) 661-2443.