A visit to a hospital is something that most travellers try to avoid. Not so in the Florida Keys, where a turtle hospital is an attraction and Richie Moretti is the man pioneering the operation.
Moretti retired from running a VW autobody shop in the early 80s and came down to Marathon, in the Middle Florida Keys, to catch the next big fish. He bought a big boat, a small motel and settled down to enjoy a slower pace of life. In 1984, encouraged by the residents of his motel, he made the Keys his full-time home.
Built in the 1940s, the small motel included a saltwater swimming pool — and Moretti quickly turned it into a home for marine pets. The first pool resident was a tarpon he caught in 1984, followed by a school of tarpon, snooks, Goliath grouper, a sawfish, lobsters and eels. Within a year of his collecting his first "pet," he had local school groups coming to visit his thriving aquarium.
"The groups would come and we would put a conch or a starfish in the kids' hands so they could see it was a living animal," Moretti said. "Then, when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show became popular in the mid-1980s, we decided to put a turtle in the pool."
Moretti lobbied the state for a turtle for the educational program, but the request was denied because he was told there was no turtle rehabilitator in the Florida Keys. Not about to let that stop him, he recruited a veterinarian and the idea for the Turtle Hospital was hatched.
Today the Turtle Hospital in Marathon is the only facility of its kind in the world — it even has a turtle ambulance for patient transport. Moretti and his staff treat injured sea turtles and, when possible, return them to the wild. If release isn't feasible, the creatures become permanent residents.
Educational tours of the facility are offered to introduce visitors to the resident sea turtles and to the hospital's curative programs for loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley turtles. Moretti credits Dr. Doug Mader, the hospital's current staff veterinarian, for bringing the facility to its present level.
In addition to turtle rehabilitation and public education, the Turtle Hospital's goals include conducting and assisting with research that aids sea turtles in conjunction with state universities, and working toward environmental legislation that makes beaches and water safer and cleaner for sea turtles.
As the heart and soul of the Turtle Hospital, Moretti has bonded with many of his patients over the years. "I look at every turtle as something special," he said. "I love them all."
The turtles and his life in the picturesque Keys keep Moretti content, satisfied and most of all calm — a welcome feeling for the self-confessed hyperactive man.
"When you live out in a string of islands that is the Keys, you realize how insignificant you are — it's a real ego check," Moretti said. "I love my life in the Keys."
For more information about Richie Moretti's Turtle Hospital, its continuing work and educational programs, visit www.turtlehospital.org.
Richie Moretti with a couple of his rescued sea turtles
Johnny, (a sub adult Loggerhead Sea Turtle that was rehabilitated after a vicious machete attack) was given a celebrity send. Jack Hanna, host of “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventure” TV show, participated in the release along with his film crew.
Moretti and his staff treat injured sea turtles and, when possible, return them to the wild. If release isn’t feasible, the creatures become permanent residents.
A Turtle Hospital staffer, right, shows visitors a female green sea turtle that underwent treatment for intestinal ailments.