Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy Rosa DiGiovanni made a gruesome discovery this week in Marathon. While on foot patrol at Sombrero Beach, she came across a bundled sheet. Inside was the severed head of a Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Next to the lifeless skull was the 600-pound turtle’s shell – shucked open like an oyster. The turtle’s flippers were hanging from a nearby tree in a white bag.
Marathon Turtle Hospital administrators Susan Schaf and Ryan Butts were called to the crime scene and positively identified the turtle as an endangered Loggerhead.
Ryan said what he saw when he arrived on the scene was pretty surprising.
“We got a call from the Sheriff’s office and thought maybe the turtle had been hit by a boat and then washed onto the shore,” Butts said. “Clearly, this turtle had been intentionally butchered. The question is whether or not it was done while the turtle was still alive or if he was already dead.”
Turtle Hospital owner Ritchie Moretti said when he and his wife Tina arrived in the Keys in the early 80s, people were still consuming loggerhead sea turtles and hanging the shells on the walls of homes and restaurants much like trophy fish mounts are seen today. “The practice had just ended when we arrived here,” Moretti said, “so we’ve certainly come a long way since then.”
Butts said other than the incident last year when his staff treated the sea turtle that was brutally attacked with a machete, he had not seen such an extreme case as the one this week.
Moretti said Butts used to come to Marathon as a guest at the Hidden Harbor Motel years before he worked as an intern during his college years.
“I would have loved to kidnap him while he was an intern, but he still had to finish school,” Moretti laughed.
Two years ago, after earning a degree in Biology, Butts accepted Moretti’s offer to oversee the hospital as an administrator.
“He’s been a great asset to the hospital and growing our presence in the community,” Moretti said. “Ryan will go from intubating a turtle to changing his shirt on the run to appear at a PR event.”
Dr. Doug Mader of the Marathon Veterinary Hospital often donates his time and services to the patients at the Turtle Hospital and works regularly with Butts and his staff.
“You might as well call him the Turtle Whisperer,” Mader said. “He’s quite an amazing individual who really works hard for those animals. Ryan’s got the energy of a Pomeranian drinking cappuccino.”
His passion for and commitment to his work are clear.
Last week, Mader escorted Butts on his fifth trip to Vaca Cut to remove fishing line from a whale shark that has taken up temporary residence in the busy waterway. After days of phone calls from boaters saying they’d spotted the whale shark and missed attempts to help the animal, the pair was finally able to hang on to the mammoth’s tail and safely remove the line.
As the investigation into the slaughtered loggerhead turtle at Sombrero Beach continues, Butts said he’s working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to provide any help he can, though his workload around the hospital has been pretty busy. Following a bizarre incident of animal cruelty in Miami this week in which two men dragged a five-foot nurse shark through the streets of downtown in attempts to sell the meat, he said he’s truly puzzled by the seeming string of incidents of animal abuse.
“Other than that, it’s been a pretty good year so far,” Butts said, explaining that with the expansion of the Turtle Hospital’s online gift store, adoption program and membership drive, the facility was faring well even in a tough economic year.
“Ryan epitomizes why we live in the Keys,” Mader said. “He truly cares about what he does and works really, really hard at it. We’re lucky to have him here.”
Anyone with information about this case should contact the Sheriff’s Office or contact Crime Stoppers of the Florida Keys. Tipsters may remain anonymous and may receive a reward if their information leads to an arrest. Tips can be submitted on line at www.tipsubmit.com or called in to the Crime Stoppers hot line at 1-800-346-TIPS.