Wildlife alumna saving sea turtles

By Bethany Roberts

Kat Lillie

Photo by Matt Shetzer, provided by Kat Lillie

Kat Lillie, a 2008 Purdue Agriculture graduate, watches a loggerhead sea turtle move toward the water. The turtle was treated and released by Sea Turtle Inc., where Lillie works.

One morning last February, a cold front swept through Laguna Madre Bay on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The water temperature dropped 40 degrees, which sent 825 Atlantic green sea turtles into shock. The turtles floated to the surface and washed onto the shores of the bay.

Kat Lillie, a 2008 Purdue Agriculture graduate, and her team of coworkers and volunteers at Sea Turtle Inc., worked 16-hour shifts four straight days to gradually warm up and save hundreds of turtles.

Lillie is the educational director for Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit conservation and rehabilitation organization based on South Padre Island in Texas. In 2008, she earned a bachelor of science degree in wildlife and a bachelor of arts degree in Spanish from Purdue.

Although Lillie researched reptiles and amphibians as a student, it wasn't until the summer after graduating that she worked with sea turtles for the first time during an internship in North Carolina.

"I absolutely fell in love," Lillie said. "I knew I wanted to continue working with these creatures after my internship."

Lillie did just that. She pursued an opening at Sea Turtle Inc. where she was hired to be the organization's environmental educator. Sea Turtle Inc. focuses on conservation efforts to protect many different species of sea turtles. The organization has a hospital facility where employees treat injured and sick turtles. Lillie said the turtles can range from less than 30 grams to more than 200 pounds.

It isn't just their size she finds fascinating; she said the turtles offer us a look back in time.

"I compare sea turtles to dinosaurs; they are so interesting," Lillie said.

Actually, there are sea turtle fossils that are older than dinosaur fossils, Lillie said. Sea turtles can be very large, and the way they move is striking.

Lillie explains to visitors who come to Sea Turtle Inc. why turtles are threatened and what individuals can do to help protect them, such as keeping the oceans clean by not littering.

"The ocean is a big ecosystem," Lillie said. "Changes in the turtle community affect other species in the same ecosystem; all animals have to adapt."

The hospital facility is open to the public and has around 80,000 visitors each year, many of whom are children. Lillie designs and runs programs that teach children why sea turtles are significant and how to protect them.

"Older children ask insightful questions, but I do get the occasional 'Can we buy them?' or 'What kind of turtle is in Finding Nemo?' from the younger ones," Lillie said.

One of Lillie's favorite turtles is an Atlantic green sea turtle named Allison. A shark bit off three of Allison's flippers, and an intern at Sea Turtle Inc. created a prosthetic flipper for her.

"Children love to watch Allison swim around," Lillie said. "And they ask a lot of questions about her prosthetic flipper."

They are generally interested in the mechanics; they ask who invented the prosthetic flipper and how it works.

"They also ask why we keep her," she said. "We usually don't try to keep turtles alive that have three limbs bitten off by sharks, because of the quality of life they would have."

But a team at Sea Turtle Inc. was researching the idea of sea turtle prostheses and the members chose Allison as their patient. Allison is the first sea turtle to have a successful prosthesis.

As with any job, Lillie faces daily obstacles. Her two main problems deal with keeping children from touching the turtles and with apathy.

"In the facility it is important to make sure people aren't petting the turtles. The turtles bite, and we don't want to lose fingers," Lillie said.

But the bigger problem is apathy, she said. She spends all day explaining why sea turtles are important and the need to keep the oceans clean to protect the turtles. But when she leaves for the day, she finds the beach covered in litter by the evening. She said that makes her wonder if she actually reaches anybody.

"However, in the end, so many children come through and get inspired," Lillie said.