Harry Appel co-owns Big Pine Key’s eco-friendly, boutique Deer Run on the Atlantic, the Florida Keys’ only designated “Four-Palm” Green Lodging Property — earning the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s highest designation for protecting the state’s natural resources.

Harry stands in front of Deer Run, the Keys’ only designated “Four-Palm” Green Lodging Property. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Veganism is a key component of the Deer Run experience. Years ago Jen DeMaria, today Harry’s partner-fiancée, took him to The White Pig, a bed-and-breakfast in Virginia where the owner nurtures pot-bellied pigs.

During the visit, Harry and the pigs played a game of kickball.

“We made an eye-to-eye connection,” Harry recalled. “That was it. That moment changed my life, thanks to Jen.”

The couple, who met in their home state of New Jersey, bought Deer Run 17 years ago after frequent stays at the oceanfront Lower Keys inn.

As well as an environmentalist, Harry is a man of contrasts.

A grandson of frugal Siberian and Italian immigrants, he grew up in New Jersey’s rural farm country of Gloucester County. As a teenager, he worked for the founder of the Maaco auto painting and AAMCO Transmissions companies and owned various muscle cars. In New Jersey he founded Appel Automotive Inc., a fleet service center for police and emergency vehicles. He’s also raced speedboats in the Keys.

Marine life artist Wyland (left) and Save-A-Turtle board president Harry Appel (right) display artwork created by Wyland exclusively for the Florida Keys-based sea turtle protection organization. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Today, Harry is an avid animal activist. He’s deeply involved with the nonprofit Save-A-Turtle of the Florida Keys as president and main permit holder for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. He’s also a Key Deer Protection Alliance advisor.

Harry currently works with the Alachua Conservation Trust on a Lower Keys pilot project to naturally restore beach habitats. He’s served on the Monroe County Climate Change Advisory Committee, the Florida Keys Scenic Corridor Alliance and two tourism boards.

Deer Run, one of only a handful of Florida properties with the four-palm designation, is the only one in the state that’s independently owned.

Guests at the off-the-beaten-path property on Big Pine Key seek out “a place that’s quiet and with a nice beach. We run it small, clean and fun,” Harry said. “I tell our guests to travel lightly throughout the Keys because no matter where you step, there’s something living here.”

Keys Voices: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?

Harry Appel: My first trip was in 1974 with three friends for a post-high-school-graduation getaway.

KV: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?

HA: The relatively rural aspect of the island chain, ocean and year-round beautiful weather.

Deer Run is named for the miniature Key deer that are protected within the Lower Keys’ National Key Deer Refuge. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

KV: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?

HA: Living side-by-side with and surrounded by diverse wildlife including endangered species — some found nowhere else in the world. Key deer and sea turtles are very high on my list of wildlife inspirations as I have so much exposure to them. The deer are so gentle and beautiful, while sea turtles still manage to survive over 100 million years in spite of the damaging hand of man.

KV: How does that passion influence your work or profession?

HA: Far more needs to be done to protect all animals including wildlife, marine life and their habitat. With an apparent acceleration of a downward trajectory regarding environmental concerns, I feel an urgent need to be as involved as possible.

KV: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?

Lower Keys turtle activist

Harry’s environmental commitment was inspired in part by living side-by-side with Key deer and sea turtles. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

HA: Providing many years of community outreach throughout the Keys through government, citizens, independent businesses and schools by teaching ways we can help sea turtles and their habitat. I’ve also built a strong relationship with world-renowned marine artist Wyland, raising money for both Save-A-Turtle and his nonprofit Wyland Foundation.

KV: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?

HA: Our Earth is in dire straits; there is not a moment to waste. We all need to focus on an authentic sustainable path and live mindfully. Having grandchildren keeps me focused, as I have a moral obligation toward them and future generations. What I do is not always easy, but I know it is right.

KV: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?

HA: To inspire people to go vegan, and to care about more than themselves, bringing them to action.

KV: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?

HA: Go vegan. Get involved in community causes. Think about more than yourself and your own immediate circle of life.

KV: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?

HA: Be it land or sea, observing nature.