A personal recollection of the pioneering aviator who became rescuer & advocate for endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles
Recent headlines about the ongoing quest for definitive confirmation of the fate of flyer Amelia Earhart brought to mind memories of her longtime close friend and rival Ila Loetscher, seven years younger, the renowned Turtle Lady of South Padre Island, Texas.
While Earhart famously vanished during an attempted around-the-world flight in 1937, Loetscher died quietly at age 95 in Brownsville, Texas, on January 4, 2000.
Earhart ate sea turtles?
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery believes, after several journeys to remote Gardner Island to investigate, that Earhart’s remains were found there in 1940, and were collected for possible identification a year later, but were lost after transport to Fiji amid the chaos of World War II.
Recent archaeological investigation has discovered other items on Gardner Island possibly associated with Earhart and her Lockheed Electra airplane, and suggests Earhart may have survived there for a time by eating sea turtles. For this Loetscher would have forgiven her despite Loetscher’s 42 years of work to discourage sea turtle poaching and consumption.
The daughter of a country doctor, Loetscher in 1929 became the first woman in Iowa to earn a flying license, and––with Earhart––cofounded the Flying 99s, an association of 99 female pilots, many of them also air racers.
Distinguished as Loetscher became as a flyer, she found her more enduring avocation in preventing the loss of sea turtles, and especially endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, after moving to the Texas coast in 1958 and finding a hurt turtle on the beach.
Self-taught turtle rehab led Loetscher to an introduction to Brownsville building contractor Dearl Adams. Adams, years before even the weak forerunner of the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1966, began a “turtle camp” whose volunteers annually protected the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting area at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico from poachers.
Started second Kemp’s ridley nesting colony
With Adams, Loetscher brought some Kemp’s ridley eggs back to South Padre Island, hoping to start a second nesting colony in case the Rancho Nuevo colony and the Kemp’s ridley species were to be wiped out by poaching, a bad storm or an oil spill.
Nestings at Rancho Nuevo have declined from as many as 40,000 per year when the nesting beach was discovered in 1947 to fewer than 700, but nestings at South Padre Island now average more than 100 per year.
The Turtle Lady
Loetscher relocated to South Padre Island in 1965. Dividing her time thereafter between hands-on rescue and rehabilitation work, lobbying, and teaching children about sea turtles, Loetscher “probably recruited more people to sea turtle conservation than all the biologists combined,” Gladys Porter Zoo assistant director Pat Burchfield told James Pinkerton of the Houston Chronicle at her death, “because of her sincere interest in and love for these animals, which was apparent to anyone who ever had the opportunity to experience one of her presentations.”
I was among those people, as a cynical almost-13-year-old baseball player in the summer of 1966 who stopped by the Aransas County Library in Rockport to check out a copy of a biography of the late Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller. I happened to be there right at the start of a Loetscher lecture about her beloved sea turtles. She was then about 62, and had begun doing her sea turtle lectures only a few months before,
Listened for an hour
I slouched against a pillar in the back of the library with my baseball glove on, near the door, thinking to myself, “This lady is nuts. Everyone here thinks she is nuts. She looks like a turtle, she has a dressed-up turtle––she must really give a damn about turtles, so let’s find out why.”
I was still there listening, still slouching, still with my baseball glove on, a solid hour later, after all but about three other people from her initial audience of maybe 15 people had gotten up and left.
Loetscher didn’t talk about turtles in the abstract; she talked about turtles she knew, including the one or several she brought. Most of her obituaries described her as a great conservationist, but she spoke of individual turtles as personal friends. No one else who was anyone in conservation then, or for many years afterward, dared to describe animals as unique and sentient beings, let alone reptiles, but Loetscher did.
Loetscher also talked about her flying days, much more interesting to me at the time. Like many boys of my generation, I had read countless books about aviation and space, as well as about baseball, and had built plastic models of some of the aircraft that Loetscher had flown.
One basic point of Loetscher’s talk, later echoed by some of the first astronauts to fly to the moon and back, was that it takes an overview of the world to understand the importance of sea turtles.
Loetscher understood and communicated that such subjects as the Vietnam War, then just racheting up and becoming controversial, and the then recent civil unrest in Indonesia which had ended with millions dead, were absolutely relevant to what she was doing at South Padre Island, half a world away, along with a zillion other things, so when someone asked her what she read to stay informed about sea turtles, she pointed toward the shelves in every direction in the Rockport Public Library where she was standing.
There was specific knowledge about sea turtles to be had, she explained, and then there was the cultural framework necessary to understand how to help them, and it took awareness of both to save them.
Both Vietnam and Indonesia are among the world’s leading sea turtle nesting habitats, but I still don’t know why Loetscher figured the Shakespeare section was relevant to sea turtles. Nonetheless, I am sure she could have explained it. We only talked briefly in person at the end of her presentation, but somehow I felt as if the whole of it was delivered specifically to me, and never forgot it.
Within another three years I had begun what is now an almost 50-year career in journalism, most of it on animal-related news beats. But something involving Loetscher only came my way to write once, oddly enough.
No more sea turtles in The Joy of Cooking
That was in 1997, when at age 92 Loetscher announced her retirement from sea turtle activism after 35 years of patrolling beaches in Texas and Mexico, machete in hand, to roust sea turtle egg poachers, rehabilitating sick and injured sea turtles, and––as I recalled––dressing up turtles as props for her lectures to school children at twice-weekly “Turtle Talks.”
Loetscher’s last triumph, albeit posthumous, was a pledge from the Scribner’s publishing company, issued six days after her death, to delete from the next edition of The Joy Of Cooking the green sea turtle soup recipe that each previous edition had featured since 1931.
The decision to delete the recipe reportedly took Scribner’s vice president and senior editor Maria Guarnaschelli just seconds after Ellen Smith of the Florida-based Sea Turtle Survival League brought the recipe to her attention, thereby achieving a goal that had eluded Loetscher herself since 1974, one year after green sea turtles became one of the first species protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Sea Turtle Inc., the nonprofit organization Loetscher founded in 1977, continues, doing sea turtle education, rehabilitation, and advocacy from 6617 Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island, TX 78597.