Servals at the Shell Factory’s petting zoo

Search for shells takes collector off the beach and path
Hunting for shells amid armadillos, sailor figurines and a petting zoo in North Fort Myers, Fla.

Aime Dunstan, Cox News Service
Last update: October 08, 2006 – 12:36 AM:

Past trailer parks galore and stands of ancient Florida slash pine in North Fort Myers, Fla., the giant “World’s Largest Shell Factory” sign (complete with a larger-than-life conch, natch) is a beacon of Old Florida. At the suggestion of a stylish friend who shares my interest in home shell decor of the Pottery Barn variety, we planned a side trip there when visiting Fort Myers.

Our first stop on the compound was at Captain Fishbone’s seafood restaurant, where shrimping nets and ships’ wheels hang on every surface. It’s the kind of place where your feet stick to the floor a little, but it’s worth it for the grouper sandwiches and coleslaw on a half shell.

Next stop was the Nature Park & Botanical Gardens, where, just past a pen full of prairie dogs and a series of murky waterfalls, roosters run wild and creatures such as an African serval and even armadillos and raccoons reside in cages made of 2-by-4s, chicken wire and mud.

It’s not very sightly, but the animals don’t seem to mind their down-home digs. Besides, all that murky water makes it easier for 10-foot Big Bertha to hide out in Gator Slough.

While the petting zoo kept the two toddlers in our group occupied dispensing pet pellets to goats, my shopping partner and I skipped the 7,000-square-foot Rainforest Aviary and headed straight for the main attraction: the shells.

At first glance, it appeared we were going to be disappointed. Painted metal fish and wooden sailor figurines filled shelf after shelf as far as the eye could see.

“There’s going to be one section that’s like a gold mine,” my friend reassured me.

And so we hunted: pushing past the taxidermy jungle, through the fudge factory and the glass-blowing station, beyond the gazillion “I Heart Florida” Christmas ornaments. Around the corner from the shell-adorned toilet seats and flamingo feather dusters, we hit the mother lode.

Conchs, bear paws, Caribbean Tritons, nautilus, clams, king helmets, abalone and long-spine murex! Giant barnacle clusters, sea horses, sponges, sand dollars, sea urchins and starfish!

Many of the shells fetched a pretty penny (8- to 10-inch queen conchs go for $24.99, and corals range in price from $7.99 for a sea fan to $300 or more for 20-inch blue coral), but I snapped up a few less-pricey items like pencil starfish ($3.99 each), sputnik urchins ($2.49 each) and a 5-inch Tonna sulcosa ($3.99) to sprinkle around the house.

Many of the Shell Factory’s shells are imported from the likes of Taiwan and the Philippines, but we found them deep in the heart of Old Florida.

Aime Dunstan writes for the Palm Beach Post and can be reached at adunstan@pbpost.com.

http://www.startribune.com/1513/story/723986.html

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