It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to build a pond for a “Hero of the Planet.”
Time magazine awarded this honor in 2000 toDr. Peter Pritchard, the quintessential global expert on turtle species and the founder of the Chelonian Research Institute in Oviedo, Florida. The institute is a short drive northeast from the tourist bustle of Orlando, and if you don’t keep your eyes peeled for the unassuming, yellow house on South Central Avenue, you could easily miss what is considered one of the most complete turtle collections in the world — a close third to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Pritchard bought the house in 1997 and converted it into a turtle museum, library and conservation area. Today, it’s one of the most sought-after destinations for life scientists and conservationists around the globe, with more than 18,000 specimens on display at the facility — some representing species that have not yet been officially named. It is also thought to have the only complete collection of sea turtle species in the world.
Among the thousands of specimens collected from more than 90 countries across all seven continents, fossils preserved in jars, film slides and encyclopedias – some penned by Pritchard himself – you’ll find a natural preserve with live Galapagos turtles, alligator turtles and other species roaming the property.
Pritchard and his wife, Sibille Hart Pritchard, make their permanent residence across the street, where they provide shelter for some of the more aggressive snapping turtles in a concrete enclosure. Some of the turtles have lived in this container for multiple years.
Zach Burke, a full-time operations employee at the institute, pointed out various flesh wounds on the bodies of the oversized reptiles, citing their tendency to snap at each other.
“They don’t have enough room,” says Burke. “So they end up fighting each other. They bite first and ask questions later.”
Enter Greg Wittstock of Aquascape, who visited the institute last year during a family vacation to Walt Disney World. He was impressed by the vastness of the facility and the inspiring stories about Dr. Pritchard. But when he learned about the issues concerning the displaced snapping turtles, his mind took action.
“I told him I could come back here in the spring to put in a Taj Mahal pad for these guys,” says Wittstock.
As promised, Wittstock and a team of 50 Certified Aquascape Contrators (CACs) from around the country — including two from Canada — returned to the site on March 10 for a one-day certified pond build.
The marathon of a day saw a few bumps and bruises and required a lot of barbecue, but in the end, the team delivered on its promise. The enchanting 16-by-18-foot ecosystem pond features a wetland filtration system and flat stone slabs on both sides to allow easy access for its half-shelled residents. Contractors brought in natural boulders for the foundation and navigated wild hogs and snakes to source local moss and logs from the back 10 acres of the property. The snapping turtles’ new digs provide a new, natural habitat with plenty of room for all four of them to peacefully coexist.
“It’s like a dream come true,” says Sibille Hart Pritchard. “For one, I think it’s an amazing spirit of kindness. I can’t believe people would come and do something like this, like we have always wanted. Now, Peter can sit and enjoy watching them in their new home. It’s just amazing.”
The quiet, stoic Dr. Pritchard expressed his appreciation for the construction of the Chelonian Research Institute’s newest attraction. In his 2000 interview, he reflected on the fact that many of these turtle species have been in existence since the days of the dinosaur.
“Some say that the moral of the story is, don’t try to be dominant,” Pritchard told Time magazine. “Try to have your place.”
Today, thanks to the hard work of the Aquascape team, Pritchard’s four large snapping friends have found their place — and are quickly learning what it means to live the pond life.