While visiting South Padre Island on my recent trip to Texas with my Dad, we visited Sea Turtle Inc, a sea turtle rescue and education center. Their mission is “to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured sea turtles, educate the public, and assist with conservation efforts for all marine turtle species”.
What started as visit to get up close to some sea turtles turned out to be another discovery of local leadership in action.
Ila Fox Loetscher – The Turtle Lady of South Padre Island
Sea Turtle Inc was found in 1977 by Ila Fox Loetscher, better known as “The Turtle Lady of South Padre Island”. Ila’s story extremely fascinating.
Ila was born in Callender, Iowa in 1904. From an early age she was fascinated by engines and aviation and eventually became the first licensed female pilot in both Iowa and Illinois. Encouraged by her friend Amelia Earhart (yes, THE Amelia Earhart), she became one of the founding members of the Ninety-Nines, an organization established to promote fellowship between, and support of, female pilots.
After her husband’s death in 1955, Ila moved to South Padre Island, Texas. Soon after her arrival, Ila developed a interest and deep affection for the sea turtle and in 1965 she was recruited to work in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico to help at the principal nesting site of the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. That two week adventure, where at 61 she camped on the rugged beaches of Rancho Nuevo, inspired Ila to devote the rest of her life to the protection of the sea turtle.
When she returned home, Ila began rehabilitating injured turtles at her home. She got a state license to do this work and before long her passion and tireless efforts were noticed by her neighbours and visitors to the island. She became an advocate and an ambassador for the sea turtle. She never missed an opportunity to explain how everyone had a role to play in protecting these amazing creatures and ensuring they didn’t go extinct. It seems that Ila was quite the marketer. She would dress recovering turtles up in specially made cloths to get people’s (and the media’s) attention – and when she had it, she would deliver her conservation message. This tactic earned her an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The David Letterman Show and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. While these quirky displays seem a bit odd for a conservationist (particularly today), Ila knew that to get the public to act, they first had to care.
Here is a video of Ila in her backyard with Gerry the turtle.
Founding Sea Turtle Inc
With her home becoming a regular stop for visitors, Ila founded Sea Turtle Inc. Her vision was that this all-volunteer organization could help her educate others on the plight of the sea turtle and to build a connection between people and the turtle by including them in the hands-on rehabilitation work.
In 1997 Ila’s heath no longer allowed her to participate in the organization’s work. The volunteers she recruited and in whom she had engendered a passion for the sea turtle stepped forward to led the organization and continue its work. Sea Turtle Inc moved from Ila’s home to its present location in 1999 and a year later, at the age of 95 Ila passed away.
While still mostly a volunteer driven organization, Sea Turtle Inc has grown in size and impact, requiring some staff to lead its efforts. They have a full time educator, a store manager and a few part-timers to help out.
In addition to Sea Turtle Inc, Ila’s passion was the genesis for “The Turtle Lady Legacy”, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 by Ila’s niece Mary Ann Tous . It was created to continuing Ila’s work by spreading awareness about sea turtle conservation through educational programming and events. It was also created as a memorial to her, to remember her life, her passion and her efforts to save the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle from extinction.
Much of what I’ve shared here about Ila, I found online and there is so much more. But what triggered this research is the experience of learning about Ila from the guide we met at Sea Turtle Inc. Her passion for the organization and its work was palatable. It glowed from her as she described their work and talked about the turtles they had in the rehab tanks. The way she talked about Ila and the intensity in her eyes as she talked about the legacy of this amazing woman, who in her retirement years founded an organization that has become a world leader in sea turtle conservation, made me think, I must learn about more about Ila Fox Loetscher. I encourage you to visit the sites listed below where you can learn more about her too.
If you are ever in South Padre Island, I highly recommend you visit Sea Turtle Inc. It is a wonderful organization doing amazing work on behalf of one of the world’s oldest surviving species. Its conservation and education efforts are a model for others and its very existence is a testament to the power of a single person with passion, grit and love. Visit to learn about the turtles and visit to pay homage to Ila Fox Loetscher, The Turtle Lady of South Padre Island.
Learn More about Ila Fox Loetscher
Photo Credits: theturtleladylegacy.org & Wikipedia.org