Mac, the St. Petersburg Sunken Gardens snapping turtle, dies

Visitors delighted in trying to spot the giant, slow-moving turtle, who hid in the shady corners of the stone pond where he lived.
A necropsy will be conducted by the Sunken Gardens veterinarian team to determine how Mac the snapping turtle died.
A necropsy will be conducted by the Sunken Gardens veterinarian team to determine how Mac the snapping turtle died. [ Sunken Gardens ]
Published Oct. 20, 2021|Updated Oct. 20, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Mac, the alligator snapping turtle who long inhabited Sunken Gardens, died this week.

The enormous turtle lived in the deepest part of a small paradise nestled just a few hundred feet from a bustling street. He measured two-and-a-half feet along his shell and weighed 150 pounds. Nobody knew how old he was, but he looked prehistoric to those who managed to spot him, stone-still at the bottom of the place his caretakers called Mac’s Pond.

A cause of death has yet to be determined. Mac was at least in his 50s, having come as a platter-sized youngster in the 1960s to what was then still a family-owned roadside attraction, said Sunken Gardens supervisor Dwayne Biggs. His exact age and early history, though, were lost to time.

He may have been the oldest animal at the Gardens, Biggs said, with only Paquita, an Amazon parrot in her 60s, competing for that distinction.

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Mac’s tenure at Sunken Gardens marked him as a vestige of a long-faded Florida where roadside attractions thrived in the years before Disney World and other corporate amusement parks ascended to dominance.

Sunken Gardens began as the passion project of George Turner, a plumber and amateur horticulturalist who, in the early 20th century, drained a lake on his 6-acre property along Fourth Street N and built a garden in the rich muck that remained. Turner began charging for tours in the 1930s.

Popular in its early years, Sunken Gardens faltered later in the century. The Turner family considered selling the land to developers, according to reports from the 1990s. Instead, the city used a voter-approved tax to buy and renovate it, and kept some of the animals, including flamingoes, a bald eagle and Mac.

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Alligator snapping turtles typically have lifespans of between 11 and 45 years in the wild, according to the National Wildlife Federation, but can live to be 70 in captivity. They are native to North Florida and protected by state law. A lure-like part of their tongue draws fish into their open mouths. Mac spent most of his time waiting for caretakers to toss him meatballs and fresh salmon.

Jagged and dinosauric, Mac couldn’t giggle with visiting children like Paquita. Part of the fun, though, was trying to spot him as he blended into his environment, a task that confounded some visitors.

When Sunken Gardens shared the news of Mac’s death Wednesday on Facebook, some who’d seen Mac once and others who’d visited for decades sent their condolences.

“Rest in Paradise Mac,” one wrote. “Maybe he was just older and wiser than anyone ever realized.”