Mitch Spero’s 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 Florida office, has a talent for behaving more like a dog than a reptile. His tricks have landed him on national TV, including the “Today” show and “Ellen.”
Florida’s latest career move? Spero, a child and family therapist, hopes to star Florida in a book series aimed at helping children overcome difficult things in life.
Nervous or shy kids, who might be afraid of a dog, giggle when they get to hold a turtle. Following Spero’s hand commands, Florida will wave at kids 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.
Spero found Florida in a pet store in 1983, and the turtle soon showed that 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 is history.
Animals are often used to help kids and adults deal with their problems, but a therapy turtle is pretty rare. Although 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 probably 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.
“I’m not sure if I would call them tricks,” Jackson said. “But if the turtle is helping out children, that’s great.”
A trained turtle is a great icebreaker, Spero said, especially when his 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 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.
“I thought, well, there is a turtle out there and he can do all these things,” she said. “I think Florida inspires kids.”