Image: Loggerhead released back to sea
Andy Newman  /  Florida Keys News Bureau via AP
Staff and volunteers of The Turtle Hospital release a loggerhead sea turtle back into the ocean off the Florida Keys near Marathon, Fla., Wednesday.
updated 9/16/2011 3:52:44 PM ET 2011-09-16T19:52:44

A federally protected loggerhead turtle was released Wednesday off the Florida Keys after recovering from a spear gun shot to its head.

Cheered by spectators, staff and volunteers from The Turtle Hospital in Marathon released the 115-pound reptile near the iconic Seven Mile Bridge. The turtle was rescued off Big Pine Key in early August with a four-foot underwater spear embedded in its head.

Hospital veterinarian Doug Mader removed the spear.

The reptile, named Sara after the daughter of the man who found it, recovered about five weeks after surgery.

Image: Xray of spear in loggerhead
Jo Ellen Basile  /  The Turtle Hospital
This Xray shows a spear lodged in the head of a loggerhead sea turtle.

"This has to be one of the luckiest turtles in history," said Mader. "The spear went in just behind the ear, crisscrossed over the windpipe and lodged against the jaw on the other side.

"Quarter-of-an-inch in either direction and that animal would be dead," he said.

Officials from National Marine Fisheries and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission have launched a criminal investigation, said FWC spokesperson Bobby Dube.

They hope to be aided by donations from outraged Keys residents and business owners who contributed to a reward for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the guilty party. More than $16,000 in cash has been amassed, plus services including fishing and dive trips, as well as eight hours of free welding by a local tradesman.

"We're used to animals getting hit by a boat or tangled up in fishing line or ropes," said Richie Moretti, who founded the hospital 25 years ago. "But this is where somebody came in deliberately and hurt our animals."

Jo Ellen Basile  /  The Turtle Hospital
The scar from a spear is seen on the side of a loggerhead's face.

Moretti began the first state-licensed veterinary sea turtle hospital in 1986 as an adjunct to his small Marathon motel. Profits from the motel were used to fund research and treatment programs.

In 1993, Moretti expanded facilities by purchasing an adjacent building that once housed an exotic dance lounge named Fanny's. The building features a surgical suite, examination room, commons area and classroom.

Today, the motel no longer functions, but the hospital has treated and rehabilitated more than 1,200 injured sea turtles and assisted tens of thousands of hatchlings gone astray after leaving their nests. It remains the only facility of its kind in the world, Moretti said, and even has a turtle ambulance for patient transport.

"Our rules are real simple," Moretti said of his patients. "You eat, you poop and you're out."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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