McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Dr. Mitch Spero's therapy partner, Florida, is up to his old tricks. For years the friendly reptile that does tricks like a dog has helped shy and fearful children overcome their anxiety.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Dr. Mitch Spero’s therapy partner is up to his old tricks this afternoon. He crawls across the room on his belly to bulldoze through a toy block wall built by a young client. Then he rolls over. And plays dead.
Unusual behavior — especially for a turtle.
Florida, the three-toed box turtle who lives next to the printer in Spero’s Plantation, Fla., office, has a talent for canine-like tricks that has landed him on national television, talk shows and YouTube.
Television star and animal lover Ellen DeGeneres featured his “greatest tricks” video on her talk show. David Letterman, known for his “stupid pet tricks” segment, called him for an audition. And he’s been profiled for the Japanese version of “Animal Planet.”
Florida’s latest career move? Spero, a child and family therapist, hopes to star Florida in a book series aimed at helping children overcome loss and trauma.
Anxious or shy youngsters who might be afraid of a dog giggle when they get to hold a turtle that, following Spero’s hand commands, will wave at them or give them a high-five. If Florida can come out of his shell, Spero tells them, or bravely push his way through obstacles like toy block walls, well, so can they.
“Even though a turtle doesn’t necessarily understand feelings, I can use him to help children learn about theirs,” said Spero, who started college wanting to be a veterinarian. He’s finished and self-published the first book, “Florida The Turtle Who Thinks He’s A Dog Finds his Feelings” ($9.43, plus tax and shipping) and is selling it at FloridaTheTurtle.com. Future volumes may find Florida dealing with divorce or a family death.
Florida’s calling card so far, however, has been his repertoire of atypical tortoise moves. Plucked from an obscure South Florida pet store in 1983, Florida soon proved he was uncommonly attentive and friendly. Grabbing at lettuce in Spero’s hand, he reared back on his haunches, sat up like a terrier, and the rest was history.
Florida even has flown coach class to film the “Today” show in New York City, and had to spend the night in a dresser drawer when the hotel couldn’t turn up a terrarium as originally promised. He spent most of his on-camera appearance the next day trying to escape from host Matt Lauer. “It was December, Florida was cold and he’s not a morning person,” Spero said.
Animal-assisted therapy is nothing new. Pet Partners, formerly called the Delta Society, has been registering four-legged therapists for about 20 years. The certification assures hospitals and nursing homes that volunteer pet therapy teams have been trained, and that the animals are clean and will behave appropriately, said spokesman Bill Kueser.
The Washington state organization has registered about 11,000 four-legged or feathered therapists; besides dogs, there are hamsters, pot-bellied pigs, chinchillas and birds. But no reptiles, including turtles. Kueser says that’s because the organization can’t figure out how to properly evaluate their work, and worries about disease transmission.
But Kueser isn’t surprised that playing with Florida helps Spero’s young patients relax and open up. One of Pet Partners’ board members is a therapist in practice with a lizard.
To be fair, if any reptile has good people skills, it probably would be the box turtle. Dale R. Jackson, a senior research zoologist at Florida State University, said they generally are friendly and very food motivated.
Spero’s early lettuce feedings likely got Florida in the habit of eagerly following his hands, Jackson said, and his unusually high, round shell causes him to “roll over” when he stretches too high.
A trained turtle is a great icebreaker, Spero said, when his new young patients think an office visit means getting a shot or something else scary. Florida also serves as a role model. Annika Wible, a 9-year-old from Plantation who has been seeing Spero since her parents divorced, remembers thinking about Florida stretching his neck far out of his shell after she had been hurt in gymnastics and wanted to quit.