Florida is a land of mystery. We have many unexplained phenomena here, such as jumping mullet. Why do they do it? Is it for joy? Is to avoid predators? Is it just fish flatulence? (That's my theory.)
We have mystery spots, such as Spook Hill in Lake Wales, where your car rolls backward up the hill instead of down. We have a mysterious tourist attraction, the Coral Castle in Miami, built by one lovelorn man using techniques no one can explain. Even our summer afternoon thunderstorms are mysterious. Scientists have detected "rogue anti-matter" in them, and they can't say why.
But my favorite Florida mystery involves a dinosaur.
In prehistoric times, many creatures stalked Florida's swampy landscape. There were saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, even mastodons. But no dinosaurs.
Now, however, Florida appears to have more fake dinosaurs than any other state — enough to stock the next three Jurassic World sequels. We've got dinosaurs that function as gas stations and dinosaurs made of recycled goods and dinosaurs that decorate putt-putt golf courses.
But the most fake dinosaurs of all are found at Dinosaur World in Plant City, just a minor evolutionary epoch down Interstate 4 from the Holy Land Experience, the Bible-themed theme park in Orlando. The fact that two such diametrically opposed theme parks exist on the same road speaks volumes about why Florida is such a consistently fascinating place.
Dinosaur World is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Built on what used to be an alligator farm, the place opened its gates in November 1998, showing off some 150 dinosaur statues (the collection has now grown to 200, including some that actually roar). School groups frequently tour the place, and it's a favorite among families with dino-obsessed children.
In November 2007, though, Dinosaur World had some very unusual visitors: Hillsborough County sheriff's investigators.
On the morning after Thanksgiving, a worker who regularly arrives first at the park to turn on the sprinklers discovered something startling. One of the dinosaurs had gone missing.
This was, indeed, a Black Friday.
The purloined reptile wasn't one of the big ones that stand out by the highway, frequently startling passing motorists. Instead, it was a 2-foot-tall, 4-foot-long one of a type known as Coelophysis. They were an early meat-eating type of dinosaur with sharp teeth and grasping claws. The Coelophysis relied on their speed and agility to catch insects and small reptiles.
The thief exhibited plenty of speed and agility, too. He or she apparently scaled a fence bordering the property, somehow freed the 50-pound statue from where it had been anchored down with concrete and rebar, then hauled it back over the fence and made off with it undetected.
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The Tampa Bay Times covered the theft with a story headlined, "Why did the dinosaur disappear?" The story noted that since discovering that it had been dino-robbed, the staff at Dinosaur World has been wrestling with one big question.
"Why?" asked one employee. "What are you going to do with a dinosaur? Put it in your yard? Try to pawn it?"
Eleven years later, the Case of the Disappearing Dino remains unsolved.
"We never got it back," said Dinosaur World general manager Marlene Svensson said last week. Thus, they never figured out how it was stolen, or why.
Despite the passage of time, I bet it's still out there somewhere, waiting to be found after all these years. Maybe it's hidden under a tarp in someone's garage, or standing in plain view amid a mobile home park's lawn gnomes. So keep your eyes peeled for the missing dinosaur, folks. I think it answers to the name of "Rex."
Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.