Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Sister Sirens of the Sea: Ila Fox Loetscher, Christine Figgener and Connie Hagar

“And the turtles, of course, all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

– Dr. Seuss

 Courtesy of theturtleladylegacy.org

Ila Fox Loetscher became a sea turtle advocate — creating Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre — after a pioneering career in aviation.

The Turtle Lady (of South Padre)

Like today’s social media influencers, Ila Fox Loetscher knew how to play to the camera and how to create a sensation with a little screen time.

At 81 in 1985, petite but indomitable Ila strolled onstage at Late Night with a year-old Atlantic green sea turtle incongruously attired in a wig and baby dress with ruffly pink panties, then proceeded to playfully nibble the creature’s flippers and rub the turtle’s oil on her face as a “beauty treatment.”

Next came a 3-year-old turtle in a giant hat and poncho, whose severed flippers caused him to swim in circles, Ila reported.

“Boy, do I know that feeling,” quipped host David Letterman, obviously tickled by his sprightly guest.

Ila didn’t mind playing the fool a bit, even though she was a person of importance in the fields of aviation and sea turtle conservation. There’s a photo of Ila being named an admiral of the Texas Navy by Gov. Mark White, and she’s carrying a sea turtle in yet another baby dress. She knew the costumes would attract attention for the turtles’ cause, and they did.

“At first, I was dismayed at the shows she put on; it was embarrassing to me as a young activist embarking on a sea turtle-influenced career,” recalls Richard Byles, who later served on the board of Ila’s group, Sea Turtle Inc. “She swayed me, not through words, but by dint of her heartfelt enthusiasm for bringing the plight of sea turtles before the public, and her success in doing so.”

Ila was no ordinary animal advocate or marine biologist. Turtle conservation was her second calling; she’d spent the first half of her life as a pioneer of aviation. The first licensed female pilot in two states (Iowa and Illinois), Ila joined with Amelia Earhart and other women pilots in 1929 as a club called the Flying Ninety-Nines (for the number of female pilots). Amelia was president, and she appointed charter member Ila as the organizer of the Midwest section. They corresponded frequently.

Ila’s husband, David, died in 1955, and Ila moved the family to a beach house behind the dunes on South Padre Island. There she became interested in trying to help the sea turtles find nests in the dunes and obtained a permit to try to raise them.

In 1966, with South Padre friend Dearl Adams, a Brownsville contractor, Ila traveled to Mexico to bring 2,000 turtle eggs back to South Padre and bury them on the beach to incubate. Rancho Nuevo was located across the border about 50 miles north of Tampico, close enough to the island to try to execute this Project Ridley. They continued relocating eggs for a decade.

South Padre sea turtles made history in 1974 when a Kemp’s ridley, Alpha, came back to her birthplace, the first such South Padre return in 20 years. She laid more than 110 eggs. Fifty-two days later, the first turtle hatched and crawled into Ila’s hands on the Fourth of July. Ila kept him and named him Yankee Doodle Dandy, dressing him in patriotic garb for parades and other appearances.

Ila also saved injured turtles and put them on public display in backyard tanks, where she charged a small fee and told their stories several times a day, building support for the once-plentiful South Padre creatures. That enterprise became Sea Turtle Inc. in 1977. Volunteers began taking a more prominent role in the operation in 1995 when Ila’s health started to fail. Sea Turtle Inc. relocated to Padre Boulevard in 1999, and opened a huge, new facility in 2018.

Ila passed away in 2000 at age 95. The Turtle Lady — Ila Fox Loetscher of South Padre was published in 2002 by the Republic of Texas Press. Biographer Evelyn Sizemore, a longtime friend of Ila’s, was also a member of the Ninety-Nines aviation club.

“I’ve learned a lot about love from my turtles,” Ila told a tabloid in 1985. “I’ve learned that humans are not the only species that feel affection.”

Ila said the turtles would hug her with their flippers and make little clicking sounds.

“They want a response, so we click back to say ‘I love you, too,’” she said. “They love to be mothered. I love them just like children.”

 Courtesy of Christine Figgener

Christine Figgener helped spark a movement to reduce use of plastic straws when she filmed her team removing a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose.

Turtles and Straws

In a promotional video for Earth Day’s 50th anniversary celebration a few months ago, a young woman with a waterfall of blond hair in a “Plastic Kills” T-shirt and cutoff jean shorts relaxes in dappled sunlight under a backyard tree and gazes comfortably into the camera. Christine Figgener describes the upcoming online festivities as birdsong erupts around her, then points a graceful finger downward to indicate the link location, like the practiced social media influencer she has become.

Named a Time 2018 Next Generation Leader (along with celebrities like Ariana Grande), Christine landed this role by chance. At her core, she’s an experienced marine biologist and self-described turtle geek.

“My research is dirty and smelly, full of long hours and unkempt hair,” she wrote on Nature.com. “I am used to obsessing over my data, not over how I look on camera.”

But when her video of a suffering sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its bleeding nostril went viral in August 2015, she couldn’t turn away from the opportunity to spread a message of conservation to millions. Five years later, Christine’s video (now with nearly 39 million views on YouTube) has started a wave of plastic straw banning that spread from worldwide corporations like Disney and Starbucks to American cities like Seattle and San Francisco to the European Union.

Christine’s team discovered the distressed male olive ridley turtle near Costa Rica, where she lived for eight years doing conservation work for marine turtles while pursuing a graduate degree from Texas A&M University. In the now-famous video, a visiting researcher slowly pulls an embedded plastic object out of the turtle’s nostril with pliers — it takes fully five minutes — while the creature sneezes and cries out.

You can hear Christine’s concerned voice, which still bears traces of her native Germany, softly soothing the turtle as she films. “I’m sorry, little one, but I think you’ll like it better afterwards, though.”

Christine said she knew the emotional footage could attract viewers and remind them that the turtle’s suffering was caused by humans.

“I just wanted to show some of my friends and followers the reality of what kind of harm plastic pollution causes to wildlife,” Christine says. “To make them see, to understand and, hopefully, to care.”

The video sparked an international movement and provided her a platform beyond anything she could have imagined, Christine says. She shares that good fortune by encouraging young women in STEM studies and appearing on panels with other up-and-coming scientists who are increasingly savvy about digital messaging.

Last fall, Christine earned the Texas A&M University doctoral degree she was pursuing when she filmed the turtle. Today she is the director of the Footprint Foundation, an organization that urges elimination of single-use plastic. A counter on the Footprint website shows plastic eliminated since 2014; in May, the tally was more than 61 million pounds.

Wondering about the fate of that olive ridley? In 2017, Christine’s team found a tagged mating couple near Costa Rica. No doubt about it, the same turtle.

Christine says people still tell her the video changed their habits.

“Everyone can do something at home, even if it’s one thing,” she says, with quiet confidence. “I am absolutely certain that together we can make a world of difference.”

 Courtesy of Alfred Eisenstaedt Collection

Connie Hagar was a self-taught authority on Texas birds who earned the respect of birders from around the world.

The Bird Lady (of Rockport)

Never underestimate the determination of a Texas woman with a burning passion in her heart. Though Connie Hagar didn’t dress birds in costumes or utilize social media to move the masses, her quiet persistence in telling the stories of Rockport wildlife transformed the sleepy coastal town into a birder’s paradise.

Rockport has recognized Connie’s achievements with not one but two wildlife sanctuaries in her name. The 32-years-and-running HummerBird Festival is a tribute to her remarkable hummingbird work, including the discovery of nine species that migrate through there. In 1938, she was the first to document the fall migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds, called “one of the most remarkable and unexpected movements in Texas, or anywhere else, for that matter.”

Born in 1886 in Corsicana, Connie (then Martha Conger Neblett) was raised like many girls of the time to become a “lady.” Even then, Connie found refuge in her large yard and learned to identify the birds with her sidekick, sister Bert. Like those birds, Connie had a gift for singing, even attending college to study voice. But she didn’t pursue a professional career, instead entering into an ill-fated first marriage.

She returned to her Corsicana home, now 35, soon meeting Boston oilman Jack Hagar and marrying him five years later in 1926. During those years, Connie and Bert (with Jack as driver) explored the native flora and fauna of Navarro County. Along the way, Connie began keeping detailed journals of everything she discovered.

“I don’t feel that I know a bird until I know it in any plumage and the way it acts,” Connie once said. “I cannot understand how some people are satisfied to have a bird pointed out to them, then just put it down on a list and go away without studying it.”

Arthritis drove the middle-aged sisters to seek out the restorative healing powers of salt water, and Connie promptly fell in love with the shorebirds they found while soaking in Rockport. The town is perfectly placed for bird-watching, smack-dab in the Central Flyway. During spring and fall migration, there’s no telling what you’ll see.

Connie and Jack bought a small cluster of cottages on Church Street, moving there in 1935. Nearly 50, Connie was thrilled at the prospect of a vast new assortment of birds to study. She spent her days walking the beaches and pastures and piers to record what she saw.

Remarkably, Connie counted birds twice a day for 35 years.

Birders from outside the area began to take notice of Connie’s published bird counts and journal articles, some dismissing her as an amateur, many coming to see for themselves. Did she really see this or that species in Rockport? Bah!

One thing all these noted ornithologists had in common: Each one left with a profound respect for the diminutive “amateur” known for her starched linen attire.

In her quest to educate all who came to her, Connie tirelessly and patiently taught many beginners as well as these experts.

Life magazine pictured her in a tribute to the country’s premier amateur naturalists. Colleague Karen Harden McCracken immortalized Connie in a 2001 biography from Texas A&M University Press.

But none ever captured Connie’s spirit so eloquently as a tribute from the National Audubon Society that reads, in part: “You opened our eyes to that great miracle of the natural worlds, the migration of birds. You enriched our knowledge by patient, open-minded and courageous observation and reporting of the facts — so many of them at first unbelievable. In your selfless devotion to the truths of nature, you have literally discovered the link between heaven and earth. You stood so straight among the wind-bent trees of your coast that you saw what others before you failed to see.”

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Related stories

First Lady of Texas Birders

Sea Turtle Inc.

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