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Paws or claws? Giant Corpse was Floating Mystery
by Nicholas Spangler
February 15, 2006 18:14 EST

MIAMI, Florida -- Something very dead was floating in an Olympia Heights canal in western Miami-Dade: A black bear was the word from Miami-Dade police. Their corpses turn up rarely and it's almost always gruesome when they do. They turn up skinless, headless and pawless, because somebody wants a rug.

There was a burst of attention Tuesday morning. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sent investigators out because killing a threatened species like the black bear is a crime. Neighbors came out because the thing stank to the heavens. Water and Sewer dropped in because they were reading meters nearby. Miami-Dade Public Works was out already, because they happened to be spraying the canal for weeds.


It was men from the public works crew who first suggested the bear was a turtle. It had big claws and swollen legs that must have looked like paws to the police, who are hardworking but not as zoologically gifted as Alfredo Leon, one of the sprayers.

'As soon as I got down there, I said, `That's no bear -- that's a turtle,' '' he said. ``I know animals. And the smell, that doesn't bother me. I'm from a farm. I'm used to slaughtering pigs.''

Public Works had an airboat and some rope, and was good enough to tow the carcass to the edge of the canal for Fish and Wildlife to examine.

''That,'' said Fish and Wildlife's Lt. Pat Reynolds, ``is one humongous turtle. See the claws? That's a freshwater turtle.''

''Grande tortuga,'' said one of the neighbors.

''You never know what you're going to find out here,'' said Ariel Casanueva, the meter reader. ``Huge snakes, huge bugs.''

''Crabs,'' said Michelle Casas, another neighbor, who saw a nasty one grab her dog Fluffy with its pincers a few years ago. ``Also an alligator. And you missed the corpse, five or 10 years ago.''

When he saw what he was dealing with, Leon had called Keith Vitale, a Public Works supervisor who confirmed, once on-scene, that the turtle could have come from anywhere. ''The network of culverts and canals goes up into the lakes, retention ponds, underground,'' he said. ``There's hundreds of miles it could have traveled.''

Vitale had arrived with a garbage truck, a crane and a crane operator named Leroy Sutton. By now there were about 15 men from various governmental departments, at least that many neighbors, one news helicopter and a number of reporters on scene. ''I've been working for the county 34 years,'' said Sutton. ``I've lifted snakes, gators, pilings, logs, debris, cars and engines. And turtles. But not this big.''

Then Sutton scooped up the turtle and placed it, dripping, on the roadside, along with some rocks and weeds and an old sneaker.


Everyone moved back as Reynolds approached. He took out a tape measure and an Audubon's Field Guide to Eastern Wildlife. The turtle measured almost five feet long and Reynolds estimated its weight at 250 pounds. ''Look at the flesh starting sloughing off,'' he said. ''That's the shell.'' He pointed out the shell's slope and smoothness, and the tapered end of the head. ``That's a soft shell turtle. One hundred percent soft shell.''

Soft shell turtles are not a threatened species, so that about closed the case from his end. Vitale gave the word and Sutton lifted the turtle high and placed it gently in the back of the garbage truck.

''They'll take it over to Black Point,'' he said. ``They have a little space they keep on top of the hill for organic material.''