Ryan Butts, the turtle rehabilitation coordinator at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, works with volunteers Sue Comoglio (from left), Lloyd Wiener and and Connie Thomas-Mazur on Cindy, who was injured and lost her left flipper in a shark attack. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
On Saturday, July 28, Ryan Butts and his wife, Kristen, were looking forward to a quiet evening at Big City Tavern on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
He ordered the seared sea scallops. She had the rigatoni with chicken, Roma and sun-dried tomatoes.
Just a relaxing night out with friends …
And then, shortly before 8:30, Ryan’s cell phone rang.
A shark attack off Pompano Beach.
The female victim, a teenager, had been rescued by a passing fisherman and brought ashore at the city marina in serious, very serious, condition.
An hour later, Butts was rushing toward Boca Raton with his patient clinging to life in the back of a Mazda SUV.
The patient, a 115-pound loggerhead turtle, about 15 years old, had lost her left front flipper to the shark. The right flipper was nearly severed. Judging by the teeth marks, her head had been in the shark’s mouth.
By early August, that injured loggerhead had a name.
She’s Cindy. The nearly severed flipper has been sutured, and she’s receiving daily care in a large blue tank at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center off North Ocean Boulevard.
For the first time in more than a year, injured turtles are being treated once more at Gumbo Limbo. In August 2011, the center let its rehab certification expire while a new, $2.5 million sea tank pavilion was being built only yards away. Too much noise. The pavilion opened on June 22 — four tanks displaying four distinct South Florida marine habitats — and now the turtle rehab pavilion is back in business, too. A permanent certification has been issued by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the grand re-opening to the public is planned for later this month.
“Sea turtles are usually only attacked if they’re already sick or injured,” says Butts, 35, the center’s new turtle rehabilitation coordinator. “They float when they’re sick or injured, and that makes them vulnerable, so it’s amazing Cindy got away. Her injuries were a few days old when she came to us, so I don’t know how. I’d say the shark possibly went after her thinking the turtle was almost dead and Cindy had more life than he thought and was able to put up enough of a fight to get away.”
Not far from Cindy, in another tank, a green turtle named Uno is recuperating from a boat strike off Hobe Sound. Look closely. See? A V-shaped slice out of her beak.
And here’s Shannon, another green, found by a fisherman in Cocoa Beach. She ate a fishing filament and suffers from fibropapilloma tumors.
Lily, also a green, was caught by a fishhook, ate the line and passed the hook, which snagged in her tail.
At Gumbo Limbo, every patient gets a “private room” — 10 tanks, 10 turtles — and Butts to oversee their care.
“To me, it’s like working with dinosaurs,” he says, grinning with enthusiasm. “Turtles have been around unchanged for 50 million years. I can come to work and care for a dinosaur every day!”
It’s not the sort of life you’d predict for a man who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., catching box turtles with friends, housing them in a bucket all summer, setting them free when school began.
“I was a bartender in college,” he recalls. “Loving life. Having a great time. Then I went to the Keys on vacation and fell in love with it.”
One day, he stumbled across the Turtle Hospital on Marathon and was instantly entranced. “I was like an 11-year-old kid,” he remembers, “trying to peek through the fence.”
While pursuing a degree in biology at Aquinas College back in Grand Rapids, he worked summer jobs at the Turtle Hospital and was hired full-time in 2006. A year ago, he came to Gumbo Limbo.
“Each one is unique,” Butts says. “They have their own personalities. Some prefer certain foods over others. Some prefer certain people over others. I’ve had some that will eat out of my hand, and some like to have their back scrubbed. They’re graceful, gentle creatures. A turtle never hurt anybody.”
Since Uno arrived on June 15, the center has taken in nine injured turtles and lost three.
“I hate to say you see so many injuries you get used to it,” Butts says. “Some are devastating, and some are just the cycle of life. What’s tragic is that so much of it is preventable. We had one loggerhead who died, and when we did a necroscopy we found 150 cigarette butts in its stomach.”
Turtles mistake them for shrimp.
A plastic grocery bag looks like a jellyfish underwater. Boat propellers carve their flippers and beaks. Filament line takes 500 years to break down.
In other words, some human beings can be sharks, too, and other human beings are saviors.
Butts doesn’t save turtles alone. On a recent Thursday morning, he watched as Connie Thomas-Mazur pulled on latex gloves and climbed into the tank to cleanse Cindy’s wounds.
Along with volunteers Sue Comoglio, Robyn Morigerato and Lloyd Wiener, she is fully trained to perform medical duties and give the turtles medication.
All four also are members of the center’s board.
“This board is very hands-on,” she laughs, crouching to swab Cindy’s healing flipper.
They draw blood, monitor glucose levels, insert vitamin drips and cleanse and treat the wounds with honey, a natural disinfectant and antibiotic.
“Right now, our main concern is infection,” Butts says. “If we can save her right flipper, she can swim.”
While Thomas-Mazur cared for Cindy, Butts carried Lily over to a table and started to rinse the wound in her left flipper.
As he worked, a gaggle of children from a local summer camp spotted him and rushed to the fence. Fingers gripping the chain-link, they pulled themselves up, straining to see, eyes wide, mouths agape — just like that enchanted 11-year-old boy Butts became when he first found the Turtle Hospital.
“She got an infection when a fishhook was removed from her left flipper,” he explained, holding Lily high so the children could see.
The turtle’s flippers flapped madly, as if she were trying to fly, and a great cry of delight rose from the children.
“She’ll be ready to go home pretty soon,” Butts assured
The turtles’ progress is tracked on a dry-erase board.