Truth be told, I canât remember the first time I met Richie Moretti. I know it was pre-1985.
He had a small âMom and Popâ motel in Marathon called Hidden Harbor. Richie and his girlfriend, Tina Brown, had begun filling the motelâs saltwater-fed pool with fish. There were tarpon, snappers, jacks, triggerfish, a small goliath grouper, Florida lobsters and a blowfish that followed Richie as he walked around the poolâs perimeter.
I asked why.
âBecause I like getting up in the morning and going swimming with the fishes,â Richie replied.
I shook my head in wonderment â but what the heck. Even back then, I had begun to understand that the Florida Keys are a place of character and characters. Certainly Richie was (and still is!) a character.
One day he called me to say he was trying to get a Fish and Wildlife permit to keep a sea turtle. Again, I asked why.
âWeâre bringing in school groups now to teach kids the importance of preserving their marine environment,â Richie said. âIâve had several requests to see one, because of this new cartoon thatâs out there.â
I said he must mean the âTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.â
âYeah, thatâs it,â he agreed. âThose martial arts-fighting reptiles.â
Richie got his first turtle and then another.
Later, someone called to report a turtle that had been hit by a boat.
âBring it here,â said Richie. âIâll take care of it.â
Now, you must understand that Richie had no veterinary experience. He made his money in Orlando restoring Volkswagen Beetles. But that didnât stop him. He managed to convince local vets to help out.
In September 1986, The Turtle Hospital was born.
One day, Richie was brought a turtle that had hideous cauliflower-like tumors over its head and flippers. He tried to find out what the problem was, but no one knew.
He did learn that sea turtles around the world were washing up on shorelines with the same disease. Determined to do something about it, Richie contacted the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine. Vets there agreed to begin a research project.
Several years later the disease was identified as fibropapilloma, a herpes-like virus. It was discovered that, in many cases, the tumors could be removed and the turtles released back into the wild.
A place to do surgery was needed, so Richie purchased Fannyâs, a closed-down strip club next to his motel. He used his own money to gut the place and build a surgical suite, examination room, commons area, classroom and an upstairs apartment for visiting vets. The one item that didnât get torn down was the dance pole in the middle of the building.
Since its opening, the hospital has treated and rehabilitated more than 1,200 sick or injured sea turtles and assisted tens of thousands of hatchlings gone astray after exiting their nests.
Among the most memorable patients was Kincaid, a sick 80-pound loggerhead sea turtle that managed to find its own way to the hospital. Kincaid swam near a dock just 20 feet from the hospitalâs rehabilitation pools for several hours without leaving. Upon close examination, staff determined he had a bacterial infection, treated him and released him 10 weeks later.
It was a lucky coincidence that Kincaid found The Turtle Hospital. But one thingâs for sure: turtles donât need health insurance when they come in. Each gets treated.
Turtles have arrived from all over the eastern seaboard and Caribbean. Sandy flew in on an American Airlines jet after getting attacked by wild dogs on a Virgin Islands beach. Less than a year later she was flown back, good as new, and released to lay her eggs.
Not long ago, Richie and everyone at The Turtle Hospital celebrated a very special moment. A loggerhead turtle named Sara was released, less than six weeks after she arrived with a diverâs spear in her head.
Why anyone would want to do that is unfathomable. Loggerheads are endangered and federally protected. People in the Keys are not happy. Theyâve raised a reward of more than $16,000 in cash, plus complimentary services â like eight hours of welding â for the tipster who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of the imbecile that launched the spear into Saraâs head.
“This has to be one of the luckiest turtles in history,” said Doug Mader, the fulltime volunteer vet who works with the hospitalâs staff of 12. “The spear went in just behind the ear, crisscrossed over the windpipe and lodged against the jaw on the other side. Quarter of an inch in either direction and that animal would be dead.”
Education remains a priority at The Turtle Hospital and tours are offered daily at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., with tour fees funding ongoing treatment programs.
Many famous folks have visited the hospital â including former President Jimmy Carter, who toured in 2010 and helped release a recovered turtle.
I watched in amazement as President Carter hung on Richieâs every word as he was shown the facility. He was unbelievably interested in the entire operation.
I credit that to Richie. He cares so much about sea turtles, and that concern is so infectious, that itâs impossible to walk away without getting âthe fever.â
Recently, Florida Keys county commissioners declared Sept. 24, 2011, to be âRichie Moretti and The Turtle Hospital Day,â honoring 25 years of serving the marine environment.
“I don’t have grandchildren,â Richie told the commissioners. âThese turtles are my grandchildren.”
No doubt about that.