Turtles and alligators were left without food, water or shade when a concrete retention pond in Florida was drained, prompting an employee in the area to get them help that might have saved their lives.
Melissa Murray, an employee in the Shoppes of Boot Ranch shopping center in Palm Harbor, said she noticed the animals inside the pond in mid-April. The water had been drained and workers were cleaning it out, leaving the animals with nothing but mud and very little water.
She also saw someone who works for the property manager driving through the mud, trying to clear it all out.
"I saw that there was a turtle and I was like, 'Hey! Stop the tractor,' just letting him know that there's a turtle over here," she said.
The worker refused to stop, she said, so she called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Melody Kilborn, a spokesperson for the organization, said officers responded to two complaints at the shopping center retention pond, one of which came on May 18.
"After the work on the pond was complete, the pond began filling with water. The officer observed alligators in the retention pond and noted that they all looked healthy," wrote Kilborn.
The property manager, Walter Jakubik, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
'A massive pit of concrete with some dried up mud'
Murray, who spotted the animals and called for help, contacted Fairl Thomas, who works with organizations to rescue wildlife.
According to Thomas, it's common for the animals in retention ponds to gain access through culverts or underground tunnels. When construction workers began working in the pond behind the shopping center and drained it, the animals inside had no way to get out or get to shaded areas.
They had no access to food, shade or water for about five weeks, she said.
She first went to the site on April 22. Murray and another person flagged her down and she was shocked by what she saw.
"It was just a massive pit of concrete with some dried up mud in it," Thomas told USA TODAY. "There's all these turtles huddled up in the corners underneath these pipes that are dripping a couple drops of water every 30 seconds or so. They were just so desperate for that moisture and anything to control their temperature."
The animals are cold-blooded, so they need sunlight to regulate their temperature. Direct sunlight for weeks on end is far too much though, she said. It causes them to overheat.
She also noted that there was "deep muck" in the concrete retention pond. She thinks some animals were hiding in the mud and came out when it started to dry up.
"When I was first there, there were probably six turtles," Thomas said. "I didn't see any gators that time and then all of a sudden, these gators appeared and more turtles. So I think that they had been living in the muck and slowly started coming out of the muck as it dried up."
She called the property manager, Jakubik, to ask for permission to get inside of the pit and rescue the animals, but he wouldn't allow her to do so due to liability or safety issues, she said. Thomas said the property manager has more authority than she does to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and ask for help, so she asked him to do that.
"He could have put water in it, which he eventually did, but it took a lot of pressure," she said. "We were just looking for any kind of help that we could get."
Altogether, Thomas rescued 10 large softshell turtles in two separate attempts. She stood on top of gravel and concrete and used a bridge net to scoop the turtles up and bring them to safety.
The pond was refilled on Thursday, she said.
Thomas, with the help of Kim Titterington, the director of educational nonprofit Swamp Girl Adventures, found a nearby pond where she could take the turtles.
Thomas said she's worried this could happen again at the same shopping center in another retention pond.
Murray, who started the rescue, said Monday afternoon that there are still some alligators in the concrete retention pond she initially called about.
"Just pick up the phone and make a phone call. It will get you somewhere," Murray said.
Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY's NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas and food.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Turtles rescued after being trapped in dry retention pond in Florida