March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

Richie Moretti is feeding defrosted squid to a 225-lb. loggerhead sea turtle named Peter, just as he has most days for the past three years. But this will be Peter’s final catered meal: He’ll soon be released into the Gulf of Mexico. “In a few hours,” says Moretti, “he’s going to think, ‘Hey, where’s my calamari?’ ”

A reptile could get spoiled at Moretti’s state-of-the-art turtle hospital in Marathon, Fla.—the world’s only fully equipped facility dedicated solely to healing sea turtles. Since opening the hospital in 1986, Moretti has lovingly rehabilitated and released 500 sick and injured adult turtles. Dr. Elliott Jacobson, one of the world’s leading reptile pathologists and one of the many veterinarians who volunteer their time to the hospital, says, “A lot of people talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Richie does.”

Moretti, 55, has long had a fondness for things shelled. Growing up in Pompton Lakes, N.J., he collected pond turtles. A self-taught mechanic, he started a business that restored and sold Volkswagens; it was so successful he retired at 40 and moved to Marathon.

There, he bought a 42-room motel and nursed ailing sea turtles in a saltwater pool. Seeing a need for a more advanced surgical facility for turtles with damaged flippers, infections and other maladies, Moretti bought the building next door and started the hospital. “This is what I’ve done all my life,” he says. “Fix stuff that’s broken.”

Moretti, who is divorced and has a 37-year-old daughter, funds the hospital with profits from his motel. His motivation becomes clear the day he and Sue Schaf, his animal coordinator and educator and only paid employee, lower Peter the loggerhead—all better since swallowing pieces of a conch shell—into the ocean off Marathon. As Peter disappears below the surface, Moretti smiles and gives Schaf a hug. “This,” he says, “is the payoff.”

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