Sue Schaf is talking to a visitor when, for no apparent reason, she stops in mid-sentence and casts a suspicious glance at a large green sea turtle named Buddy. To an observer, Buddy seems to be sitting placidly in his blue plastic kiddy pool that has no water in it. "Don't even think about it, Buddy," warns Schaf, the thirty-four year old animal director of the Marathon Key Turtle Hospital, the world's only hospital devoted fully to the care of sea turtles. Her voice is friendly but tinged with the steely resolve mothers reserve for mischievous children.
There is a moment of calm as the two regard each other.
Then Buddy makes his move. He lunges toward the edge of the pool and in a flash his powerful right front flipper is already over the side. Using the flipper as a lever, he pulls himself up and is a nanosecond away from hurling himself onto the tile floor. But Schaf's reflexes are too quick. She manages to grab the side of Buddy's large round shell at the precise moment that his center of gravity is shifting over the fulcrum of the pool's edge. Grunting with the effort, Schaf lugs the thrashing turtle, all sixty-three pounds of him, back into the middle of the wading pool.
"Come on, boy!" she pleads, catching her breath. "Don't be so nuts."
Buddy does seem a bit nuts for a green sea turtle. Out of the water, most greens are about as impulsive as rocks. But in the three months that Buddy has been in residence at the hospital, he has earned a reputation for rowdiness. Now Buddy exhales, as if in disgust. The sound is that of a tire deflating.
"Yeah, Buddy's kinda crazy," says Schaf. "But I'd rather have them feisty instead of so sick like Jonathan." She nods toward a small plastic bucket in the corner. Inside the container lies a much smaller turtle, a mere twelve pounds, and just over a foot long. Buddy, who is more than two feet long, is probably in his late teens. Jonathan is the turtle equivalent of a toddler. He, too, was entangled in fishing line, but was rescued before the line had a chance to cut deep into his tissues. Unlike Buddy, who was found only a few miles away from the hospital, Jonathan is an "out-of-towner." He comes from the waters off Vero Beach, a few hundred miles to the north, halfway up the Florida's Atlantic coast.
Jonathan doesn't look well. He floats listlessly in his small bucket.
Occasionally an eye swivels to the rear as if he is trying to see something behind him. A small yellow tube extends from an incision in his neck just above the right front flipper. He is too weak to eat on his own, Schaf explains. She points to the underside of his shell, the part biologists call the plastron. It's caved in, and the skin covering it hangs loosely, like an adult's sweater on a child. "In a healthy turtle the plastron is kind'a pushed out," Schaf says, her voice warm and solicitous. "This little guy is starving."
The cause of Jonathan's predicament is obvious, even at first glance. The small turtle is covered with tumors. They grow in dark clumps from his rear flippers. Tightly-packed clusters of pink and grey tissue adhere like congealed foam to the skin beneath Jonathan's front flippers. Smaller, dull-white tumors sprout like mushrooms from the corners of his eyes. The largest tumor bulges from Jonathan's right shoulder, nearly as large as his head. It is rounded, completely black, and gives off a vile odor. The surface is ulcerated and bits of dark tissue mixed with blood are constantly sloughing off into the water. Buddy has tumors, too. They are on his eyes, under his good flipper, above the stump where he lost his other flipper, on top of his neck, below his neck. These tumors are the reason why the two turtles are here today, in the hospital's "pre-op" room, waiting for veterinarian and reptile surgeon Doug Mader. Mader is something of a super-star in the small but fanatical world of reptile enthusiasts. He edited the standard reference work on reptile medicine and writes a monthly column for Reptile magazine. Tall and powerfully built, with dark brooding eyes, he could have stepped out of an Elizabethan drama. You half expect him to perform surgery with a dagger instead of a scalpel.
"Hello, people," Mader says. "Let's get started."