Originally published June 16, 2007
Teen Moves Turtles From Drought-Stricken Ponds


Kurt Spitzer waded through the chest-deep stormwater pond for almost an hour before he suddenly plunged below the surface - and came up empty-handed and disappointed.

"He must have been this big," said Spitzer, making a circle as big as a serving platter. "That's the very one we came for."

So it was on a recent afternoon that a soft-shell turtle avoided capture - and perhaps salvation. Spitzer, 18, was trying to remove the turtle from the potential death trap of a stormwater pond that's being dredged and cleaned.

It's a service he has performed this year for several hundred aquatic turtles, relocating them from drought-stricken ponds and hazardous areas to safer lakes and wetlands. It's become a passion for Spitzer, who has overcome a childhood plagued by learning disorders.

Spitzer has been the chief volunteer for biologist Matt Aresco, the driving force behind a planned $4.5-million ecopassage that will allow turtles to move from Lake Jackson to Little Lake Jackson through tunnels beneath busy U.S. Highway 27. Since 2000, Aresco has saved 9,000 turtles from death with temporary roadside netting that allows them to be caught and relocated.

Aresco is a former Florida State University grad student and director of Nokuse Plantation, a wildlife sanctuary in Walton County. He commutes frequently to Tallahassee and hails Spitzer as his best volunteer ever.

"Kurt is really dedicated and passionate about conservation," Aresco said. "It's pretty rare to find someone his age with that much dedication. He could have a future as a biologist if that's what he wants to do."

Spitzer, who graduated in May from John Paul II Catholic High School, indeed has designs on being a biologist. He won a scholarship to Emory & Henry, a liberal-arts college in Virginia with a celebrated program in turtle research.

College is the latest giant step for Spitzer, diagnosed at age 5 with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and dysgraphia, conditions that made it difficult for him to read, write and take tests at the pace of other students. By junior high, he was struggling in school - and the Leon County school system refused to recognize his conditions as disabilities and make accommodations.

So his mother, a psychiatric-nurse practitioner, founded a local support group for children with ADHD and lobbied for changes. The result was a 2000 watershed when Leon County Schools Superintendent Bill Montford instituted new policies for students with ADHD - such as extended test-taking time - and had 700 teachers trained in how to better accommodate those students.

The changes were pivotal for Spitzer, who sailed through Belle Vue and Raa middle schools and John Paul II, where he was elected vice president of the senior class. He tutors children and does volunteer work at a Frenchtown church. Last summer, he attended a Duke University program about theology and philosophy. His scholarship-winning application to Emory & Henry included his essay "How My Life Has Been Influenced by Being Born Different."

"Getting Kurt an education was my only goal in life," said his mother, Vicki Spitzer. "He is very gifted. I think he is destined to do something great with his life."

The gangly teenager has raised land-based box turtles in his backyard since seventh grade - leading classmates to nickname him Kurtle. When a family friend introduced him to Aresco last year, Spitzer jumped at the chance to help save aquatic turtles.

The lack of rain from February to June left hundreds of yellow-bellied sliders, Florida cooters and soft-shell turtles facing death as their habitat dried up. Often helped by his best friend, Leon High senior Sam Ecenia, Spitzer routinely took 50 to 60 turtles an afternoon from drying ponds and released them into Lake Jackson.

He also patrolled Aresco's ecopassage, fixing tears in the fence and rescuing fresh-laid turtle eggs from foraging raccoons and armadillos. He incubated the eggs at home, then released them into a natural habitat.

"I really get satisfaction out of helping these animals," Spitzer said. "I am fascinated with turtles."

Gerald Ensley

Democrat Senior Writer

Contact reporter Gerald Ensley at (850) 599-2310 or gensley@tallahassee.com.


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