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Taking care of patients at his hospital day job, Charlie Green would come home to a different kind of care giving — this time for the pets living inside the more than 50 cages in his Asheville home’s basement.
Green would pick up the animals, clean their disordered quarters, repair their shells, watch their eggs and hold them as close as he would a child.
These pets were turtles, and they were his pride and joy.
Known as the “Turtle Man” to most everyone who met him, Green’s love of turtles and other reptiles took first place in his life, which demonstrated his devotion to the cold-blooded creatures. He worked with them, played with them, lived with them at home and inspired others to appreciate them, too. Green died on Jan. 10, 2012, from a tumor. He was 60 years old.
Green’s wife, Maggie Turnbull, said: “He would say to me, ‘You don’t understand. The turtles aren’t part of my life, they are my life.’”
With a dark armored shell covered by designs or spots, wrinkled, dinosaur-like feet and long extending necks, turtles are often described as cute, despite their hard outer layer and reptilian eyes. Moseying along, they carry cultured wisdom as old as their species, allowing them to both evade predators and to populate children’s fables.
Green found their uniqueness beautiful, Turnbull said. And his work to keep, rehabilitate and repopulate their species allowed him constant interaction with them, and it provided him a certain level of notoriety.
He volunteered at the Western North Carolina Nature Center for decades, spoke at schools and nursing homes and constantly strove to instill a similar love of turtles in everyone he met.
A large part of Green’s work with the animals was his rehabilitation of the injured turtles that people and the Nature Center brought to him. “Charlie called those ‘scratch-and-dent turtles,’” said Savannah Trantham, an employee at the Nature Center.
Trantham said that when she started working at the Nature Center as an intern in 2005, she could always count on Green to take in any turtle she called him about. He housed hundreds of turtles and other reptiles in his home, and most of the turtles that currently reside at the Nature Center were turtles Green cared for, she said.
“He would’ve taken 100 turtles if I had called him about 100 turtles in a day,” she said.
Trantham said his work as a nurse in the radiology department at Mission Hospitals fueled the start to his turtle rehabilitation because it provided another way for Green to take care of other creatures and nurse them back to health. He worked at Mission for 25 years, according to his obituary.
Even though Green always had an infatuation with turtles, he didn’t start collecting them until adulthood, Turnbull said.
His collection started with one single turtle that he found and brought home, but it quickly grew until his house held 400 turtles, 100 snakes, three alligators and numerous salamanders, lizards and iguanas when he died.
Taking care of that many reptiles was no easy job.
Green and Turnbull’s basement and backyard had a continuous stream of high school students and volunteers who came to help Green work with the turtles by cleaning out the tanks, feeding them and helping incubate the turtle eggs that they would dig up in the wild.
Beth Ulmer, a Haywood Community College student who volunteered with Green for seven months, said digging for eggs was one of his favorite activities, but he made the greatest impact through education.
“Education is a great aspect because you can really make an impact on kids,” Ulmer said.
Green’s education programs at the Nature Center and other events and schools around the area were his way of spreading his love to the public.
“His passion and excitement for reptiles was just contagious,” Trantham said. “All he wanted was to share.”
Turnbull agreed, describing him and his passion as “engaging and infectious.”
“When you were around him you just wanted a turtle of your own,” she said. “He just made it seem like it was the best thing in the world.”
Turnbull said people would stop her and Green in stores and tell them about how he had inspired them to care about turtles. And now, Trantham said, “When I have people call who found out he passed, they’re just devastated.”
Trantham said her own love of turtles was fueled by Green’s involvement. Wanting to continue his work, she now has ponds in her own backyard to house the turtles she rehabilitates.
“People don’t realize that all the cold-blooded animals are just as in need for homes as the cats and dogs in shelters,” she said.
Ironically, Turnbull did not share the same infatuation with turtles of her late husband, but has her own passion in making quilts.
“I like all animals, I would never hurt one,” she said. “But I don’t necessarily think turtles are cuddly either.”
Even though she didn’t have the same feelings about the reptiles as Green, she witnessed his love for them daily. She said he thought turtles were the most beautiful things in the world.
“He was just mesmerized by them and their ancientness,” Turnbull said.
His work didn’t stop at home. Green raised Turbull’s daughter Meghann to appreciate and love the animals, and all of his world travels were centered on learning more about reptiles. One of his snapping turtles, Helga, was even featured in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
“Charlie had many, many relationships with many, many people,” Turnbull said. “But his relationships with turtles and turtle people (were) truly unique.
“We are just touched by how many people have told us how they were inspired him, how much they loved him, (and) how much they miss him.”
The Western North Carolina Nature Center dedicated its turtle pond to Charlie Green last November and has installed a box turtle statue at the edge of the area, which visitors can see with their paid admission.
And though Green has died, people can still bring their found, injured or unwanted turtles to the Nature Center for help.