Tooling along I-10 20 years ago, Robert Hughes and his wife Michele saw something in the road: A box turtle.
They stopped the car and tried to move the turtle to the side of the road. When it tried to cross the road again, they decided to save it from itself. They took it home to Gulfport.
The rest is turtle – and tortoise – history.
“We probably have, right now, about 40 box turtles, I think it’s either six or seven water turtles, there’s three Russian tortoises, two red foot tortoises, two African spur-thigh [also called sulcata] tortoises…” Robert says.
But right now, one is missing: Sasha, a Russian tortoise.
“One of the female Russian tortoises, about two weeks ago or so, some ladies were having work done and their plumber saw the tortoise,” Robert said. The neighbors called, and Michele and Robert counted shells and realized one of the tortoises, a Russian tortoise named Sasha, had disappeared.
Her mate, Putin, is doing fine, Robert says, although the tortoise has attempted to mate with other tortoises who are larger than he is, something that doesn’t always go over so well.
If you’re wondering how many tortoises and turtles the Hughes family has, well, they have a lot. One was there when they moved in, and they let it stay. Then came the box turtle on I-10, and after that, well, turtles and tortoises sort of found the Stetson-area couple.
“I don’t know if they have pheromones or not,” Robert says, “but other turtles started trying to get in.”
Over time, the turtles and tortoises started making more turtles and tortoises; some have cross-bred.
“People just bring unwanted tortoises and turtles and drop them off,” Robert says. Sometimes they’re injured, as was Freeway, a tortoise a car hit on – you guessed it – the highway. She suffered a crushed shell, and the vet wanted to euthanize her, but Robert and Michele nursed her back to health. Her shell isn’t as pretty as perhaps it once was, but it knitted itself back together, and she’s doing just fine.
Then there’s Peg, the three-legged tortoise. When an animal attacked her, “some people brought it by and said ‘we heard you take care of injured turtles’,” Robert said. He stitched her up, and last year Peg hatched a clutch of turtles.
Another young woman, ready to leave for college, brought her sulcata, Sue, to them. He’s now the largest of their menagerie – yes, Sue’s a boy, and apparently views Robert’s mobility scooter as an adversary, often charging at it.
They’re not, Michele explains, wildlife rehabbers. They treat these animals like pets.
They come when she calls them. She scratches their head, picks Cuban pea blossoms for Peg, offers a banana to a red-footed tortoise, scatters romaine for them, and sets out countless bowls of fresh water. Chewy sells turtle chow, but Michele likes to offer the turtles and tortoises fresh fruits and vegetables. Sometimes neighbors will drop off just-about-to-go-bad produce, for which they’re grateful.
“It can get expensive,” she admits. They don’t take vacations – tortoise sitters are hard to find – and the reptiles have claimed every inch of their landscape.
“A lot of them live underneath our front deck. Some of the others have dug holes, some of the others just get flat under the deck,” Robert says. Some tortoises and turtles have houses; some have enclosures. They’ve done their best to escape-proof the large, shaded yard, but clearly, nothing’s foolproof. Case in point: Sasha
“She’s extremely friendly,” Robert said of Sasha. “I’m sure somebody picked her up and decided to keep her, but we have the sign out just in case.”
If you’ve seen Sasha or know what happened to her, please call the Hughes family at 727-345-7953 (this is a land line; texts will not go through). The Hughes’ miss Sasha and want her back home, but ask people to please not bring them injured animals. The SPCA of Tampa Bay has a wildlife assistance program.