JEFFREY Z. CARNEY/The World-Herald Angie “The Turtle Lady” Byorth, pictured in 1996, ran the Turtle Conservation Project Inc.
She suffered a stroke and is looking for homes for a few of her charges.
Angie Byorth, who legally changed her middle name to “The Turtle Lady” a decade ago, was caring for 130 turtles when she suffered a stroke May 7. Since then, Byorth has been at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital trying to recover the use of her right arm and right leg.
Her days of almost singlehandedly running Turtle Conservation Project Inc., from her central Lincoln home are over, Byorth said sadly Tuesday from her hospital bed.
“I can’t do it anymore,” said the 58-year-old native of Germany. “It was too much work. It was really killing me.”
Once she finds good homes for five remaining turtles, Byorth will close the book on a colorful career devoted to some of nature’s least-cuddly creatures. Her passionate and creative efforts led to passage of a state law, numerous conservation awards and a spot on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” show.
“There’s never going to be another one like her,” said friend and co-worker Janice Spicha of Lincoln. “She’s literally sacrificed everything for the turtles. When other people were buying clothes and cars, all of Angie’s money went to the turtles.”
Byorth, the divorced mother of two grown children, began rehabilitating and releasing sick and injured turtles in 1973. As word spread of her work, people would drop off turtles they found along roads, ponds and rivers.
She fed them, repaired broken shells and found veterinarians willing to help.
When healthy, the turtles were released into their favored habitats by Byorth, who drove as far as the Sand Hills and the Panhandle seeking a suitable site.
She rehabilitated nearly 2,000 turtles over the years.
“One thing led to another and I ended up being the Turtle Lady,” she said.
She legally changed her name in 2000, before an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the Legislature.
A real estate agent by occupation, Byorth spent 11 years lobbying the Legislature to end what she called commercial exploitation of Nebraska turtles and reptiles.
During the campaign, she enlisted the help of schoolchildren to testify at public hearings. She erected a “pro-turtle” billboard in Lincoln and gave hand-crafted turtle Christmas tree ornaments to state senators.
Finally, after a seven-year state study confirmed her assessment that native turtle populations were being decimated by commercial trapping, then-Gov. Mike Johanns signed the new regulations into law in 2002.
In a crowning act of turtle diplomacy, Byorth’s massive African, spur-thighed desert tortoise, “Big Boy,” carried a box of “turtle” chocolates into the signing ceremony.
She never gave up, said Mark Brohman, a former state legislative aide who met Byorth when she first pitched a turtle protection bill in 1991.
“If she could have, she would have done this full time. I know it’s cost her professionally in her career,” said Brohman, now executive director of the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
Brohman is one of Byorth’s friends now trying to help Byorth’s son, Carl, find new homes for her remaining turtles.
Most of the 130 turtles Byorth sheltered were native and Carl Byorth found homes for them. But placing the non-native turtles has been more difficult.
Big Boy, now an aggressive 100-pounder, found a home last weekend at an exotic wildlife farm near Gretna called Wildlife Encounters.
Byorth, who expects to be released from the hospital in 10 days, said she plans to keep three turtles: “Stumpy,” a three-legged ornate box turtle brought to her in 1975; “Ike,” an 80-year-old, three-toed box turtle given to her in 1973 by Betsy Finch, the founder of the Nebraska Raptor Recovery program; and “Greekie,” a rare Greek tortoise born in captivity in Germany that reminds her of the first turtle she had as a child.
“They’re my special turtles,” Byorth said.
Homes are still being sought for two tiny “bog turtles” and three Russian tortoises.
Byorth said she wants “good homes.” And Finch, who nurses injured owls, hawks and eagles back to health, pointed out that turtles, because of their long lives, require a certain type of caregiver.
“They’re a lot harder than people think,” Finch said.
Byorth received a few donations during her rescue efforts. She regularly credited her employer, Home Realty, for aiding her cause, which included numerous visits to local schools.
Freed from caring for dozens of turtles, Byorth plans to use her time to complete a book on her life’s work.
“I want to make a difference in my writing,” she said. “I don’t even want to get attached to turtles again.”
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