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Florida's 'Turtle God' is ailing. What happens to his remarkable collection of specimens? (w/video)

OVIEDO — In a small town about five miles from the University of Central Florida there stands a two-story yellow house built in the 1920s. A modest sign mounted on the wall next to the front door says, "Chelonian Research Institute."

Step inside that door and you'll find the largest private collection of turtle and tortoise specimens in the world — 13,000 individual pieces from 100 different countries, hanging on every inch of the walls and lining every table and shelf. Live ones crawl slowly around enclosures or swim in ponds around back.

The institute and its vast array of shells, skulls, skeletons and live creatures are the life's work of Peter C.H. Pritchard, a lanky and erudite scientist who has been called "the Jane Goodall of turtles." One of his many adoring colleagues refers to him as "The Turtle God." Time magazine declared him "A Hero of the Planet," although one of his children asked his sometimes-distracted dad, "Which planet?" Disney-bound tourists stepping off a plane at the Orlando airport see a huge photo of him holding a turtle. Worldwide, four species of turtle are named for him.

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But Pritchard, 74, now suffers from Alzheimer's disease. The robust and perpetually inquisitive explorer who once climbed mountains and snorkeled beneath the sea chasing specimens is now rail thin and frail. During a visit earlier this month, he was unable to speak and seemed hesitant to take a step without someone helping him.

His vivacious wife Sibille, 72, says his days of lecturing students are over. His vintage Rolls-Royce — a prized possession because family lore says one of his ancestors introduced Mr. Rolls to Mr. Royce — hasn't been cranked in months.

He now sits in his home across the street from the institute and flips idly through his own books. He perks up a bit when his wife puts on a BBC documentary about the time in 1971 when he helped discover Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise and an icon for Galapagos Islands conservation.

His deteriorating condition raises the question: What will become of his collection, assembled over five decades?

Will it remain in little Oviedo, a hidden gem displayed according to Pritchard's own idiosyncratic system? Or will it wind up being absorbed into a museum or university, perhaps one outside Florida? Mrs. Pritchard says the institute's board has talked with several institutions, but nothing's resolved.

"We've got to come to grips with how to preserve it," said one institute board member, Orlando environmental consultant Mike Dennis. "The general consensus of the board members is that it's extremely valuable, and we need to find a long-term home, and a method of curating it."

• • •

When Pritchard was 10 years old, his grandparents took him to the London Zoo. He saw, for the first time, a turtle. He was thunderstruck by the exotic creature.

"I didn't even know there were such things before," he explained years later, his British accent clipped but genial.

He began reading everything he could find about them. The more he learned, the better he liked them.

"Turtles are not trying to dominate Earth," Pritchard once said. "They're just trying to survive."

Soon he was raising some as pets. When he was at Oxford University studying chemistry, he kept a tank full in his dorm. He kept meat to feed them, and he turned up his heater to maintain the proper temperature. It did not make him popular.

"You could smell those things from 20 yards away," his brother, Michael, said. "But Peter always did his own thing. He was going to do what he was going to do, and the rest of the world would have to adjust."

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Eventually, Pritchard decided that instead of chemistry, he should study turtles. He moved to Gainesville to learn all he could from legendary University of Florida sea turtle expert Archie Carr, for whom the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard County was later named.

Pritchard earned a Ph.D. in zoology there in 1969, and went on to write more than a dozen books, including "The Encyclopedia of Turtles," a standard reference among scientists, and even a children's book, "Cleopatra the Turtle Girl." He also wrote "Saving What's Left," a manual on conserving environmentally sensitive lands in Florida, and helped write the first recovery plan for the endangered Florida panther.

But his passion remained turtles. He traveled the globe chasing them, pursuing snake-necked turtles in New Guinea and pond turtles in Myanmar, traveling throughout Asia and Africa filming a documentary called "The Turtle Planet."

"I never asked him if he'd been somewhere," said his current assistant, Zach Burke, an Oviedo native. "Instead I would ask him when he was there."

Pritchard was determined to collect only already dead turtles and tortoises, instead of killing the specimens the way some scientists did, Burke said. That led to some odd situations.

Once in India, he found some rare remains near the Taj Mahal and snuck it back into his ritzy hotel. He began scooping the mostly liquefied carcass into the toilet so he could keep the shell. Meanwhile, according to Allen and Anita Salzberg of the publication Herp Digest, six hotel staffers were banging on his door because of complaints about the odor.

He didn't care. He got his shell.

Pritchard met his wife, a journalist, at a party in Guyana, where he was researching turtles. She had no interest in his favorite subject, but she found him fascinating. After all, how many men keep turtles and crocodiles in a bathtub, or dodged death in a sinking boat in the Galapagos? They married and had three children.

Pritchard was something of a throwback to the Victorian model of scientist, said Florida gopher tortoise expert George Heinrich. These days the trend in science is toward specialization in one region or one species, but "Peter's interest and knowledge was global and encyclopedic."

In 1998, on 15 acres in Oviedo, he opened his institute, named for the scientific order that covers turtles, tortoises and terrapins. He filled it with his still-growing collection, as well as books and research papers and live creatures, and invited anyone who was interested to stop by and see it, free of charge. Lots of people did, including Girl Scout troops, government officials and celebrities.

"You never knew who was going to show up," recalled a former assistant, Tim Walsh, now assistant director of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. "I'd be packing up to leave for the day and he'd say, 'Oh, you should stick around. Miss America is stopping by.' "

Anyone who tours the institute is, in a way, seeing into Pritchard's mind and personality, explained Simona Ceriani, a marine turtle expert with the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, who regards Pritchard and his wife as her surrogate parents.

"That place is really him," she said.

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He organized the displays to highlight not just the specimens themselves but also artwork and native crafts that give them a cultural context. There are plenty of shells and skeletons — and even one taxidermied loggerhead — that can be touched rather than merely observed.

"When he set it up, he didn't want it to be like a museum," Burke said. "He wanted it to be like visiting a friend's house."

And he delighted in playing tour guide, giving as much time to answer questions for a curious 4-year-old as he would to a visiting scientist. At one point several years ago, while Ceriani was trying to work with him on a project, he leaped up to show visitors around so frequently that she finally blurted out, "How do you get anything done?"

But now all that is changing.

•••

Alzheimer's had already begun taking its toll on Pritchard when he experienced a bad reaction to an antibiotic recently. It has, for now, robbed him of speech and the ability to walk unaided, his wife said.

"When he was well, he would come over here every day to work," she said while showing visitors around the institute. She is hopeful those days are not forever gone.

The loss of Pritchard playing tour guide and mentor has already changed the experience of visiting the institute. Moving the collection to a university or museum would alter it even further, Ceriani said.

Without him, "you lose that personal touch and that relationship," Ceriani said. Pick up any piece in the collection, she said, and "Peter would tell you the story of how he got that sample."

Dennis said the board has held two meetings to discuss what to do about the institute's future, so far without figuring out an answer.

"We don't know what's going to happen" said Mrs. Pritchard, who's also on the board. "We are trying to preserve it — and keep it in Florida."

Senior news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

Florida's 'Turtle God' is ailing. What happens to his remarkable collection of specimens? (w/video) 10/20/17 [Last modified: Sunday, October 22, 2017 5:05pm]
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