Whitney Southall’s love of turtles started when she was a child and caught sight of them in a pet store in Orange.
Like in the song about the child who spots a doggie in the window, the young Southall looked in the shop and found an African spurred tortoise.
“I always swore that one day I was going to get one and name him Rupert,” she said. She eventually did acquire a turtle by that name, and three others.
All four turtles perished in a fire outside Southall’s School Bus Road home on Nov. 10. The blaze is believed to have been caused by a malfunctioning heat lamp.
“My heart still hurts from that night,” she said.
After Southall saw that first turtle, she began to collect all kinds of little turtle trinkets, stuffed animals and anything that had a turtle on it. To this day, she still does it, buying everything she can find with baby turtles for Willow, her 13-month-old daughter.
“Mom and dad let me have little aquatic turtles over the years,” Southall said. “I always found box turtles outside and tried to make a home for them, feed them and care for them, but I would always release them. Now that I’m older, I can’t stand for someone to take them home when they see them across the road. Put them on the other side in the direction they are heading.”
She left for college from 2002 to 2006. During her sophomore year she worked at a small, family-owned pet store.
“The owner went to a reptile convention in Roanoke and came back with two or three of the African spurred tortoises,” she recalled. “They fit in the palm of my hand, and I have a little hand. I just knew right then I had to have one.
The one she picked out cost $300, and Southall was “a broke college student.
“I worked my butt off at the pet store and was even a lifeguard for Radford [University] just to save up some money to get him.”
When she was a senior she bought another.
“I thought Rupert needed a friend,” she said. “So I got Flip. I named him that because as a baby he would always find a way to somehow flip over and I would find him upside down several times a day. I’m not sure if he was trying to climb or if Rupert was flipping him.”
Over the years, two more turtles, Squirt and Munchie, were added to the family.
The inevitable price of love is that one day, whether due to tragedy or time, you realize you cannot be together forever.
“The turtle house had heat lamps—which I had just replaced—insulation, and a shingled roof,” she said. “That night, I had checked on them around 1 a.m. and everything seemed fine. At around 4 a.m., I woke up and looked outside, and the whole thing was engulfed in flames. The fire department came out, and they got them all out, but none survived.
Willow has been there to console her mom. In addition to family, the community outreach has been “incredible,” Southall said.
“There’s been so many people who have offered to help, to donate money, to do anything they can,” she said. “I’m so thankful to the people in my life and around Louisa.”
Southall may not be ready to move on yet, but she will be one day.
“I am going to have to rebuild the whole house,” she said. “But I want to get some [more turtles] so Willow can grow up with them the way I did.”