A few years ago, Terry Norton ended a lecture at the University of Georgia with an unexpected reunion.
A student approached Norton, director of veterinary services and wildlife health at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, to say it was great learning from him again. A decade ago, the young woman told him she’d been a participant in a youth sea turtle camp on Jekyll Island hosted each summer at the center.
She is one of many who have been touched by what they learned at Georgia’s only sea turtle rehabilitation center, which Norton helped open in 2007.
Norton, who envisioned the center years before it was a reality, will step away from his leadership position March 1 and retire to pursue new career opportunities.
“I’m not really retiring,” he said. “I’m leaving the center, and I’m moving in new directions and will still be active in wildlife rehab and research. This will give me a little more time and flexibility, and I’ll be doing some international work as well.”
Norton began working on Jekyll in 2007, but his efforts to create and open the center began years earlier in 2001 when he started having conversations with others in the community about his idea for a place that could offer turtle rehabilitation and education under one roof. The idea grew from his experience working with wildlife on the Georgia coast.
Center staff and Jekyll leaders celebrated Norton’s retirement Friday with a private reception held in the center.
Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority, recalled during the event that he had only been on the job a couple of days before he met with Norton to ask him to take on an even larger leadership role at the center.
Norton served as veterinarian when the center opened, and a director oversaw administration. When the director left after only a short time, Hooks said Norton was the obvious choice to take the reins.
“You’re really the father of the center here,” Hooks said. “We really appreciate everything that you’ve done.”
In an interview with The News, Norton said his love for animals goes all the way back to childhood. He carried that passion forward through college and the start to his career. He went to St. Catherines Island in the early 1990s to work for an endangered species breeding program and fell in love with the Georgia coast, and moved here permanently soon afterward.
“I was able to convince the St. Catherines Island Foundation to hire me full time to develop wildlife health programs on the Georgia coast and on St. Catherines, which meant doing more research based work,” he said.
One of the projects focused on loggerhead sea turtles, a species that nests annually on the state’s coast. Conservation work in Georgia has been going on for decades to recover the species and ensure its future survival.
Before the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, injured turtles were temporarily cared for by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources or others but eventually were transported out of state to a center that could offer long-term care.
“I just didn’t like my patients going away,” Norton said.
Norton worked with Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist and Georgia Sea Turtle Program coordinator at DNR, and others to bring his idea for the center forward to the Jekyll Island Authority Foundation.
“There were two really important needs that we recognized for both the Georgia coast and for Jekyll Island in regard to sea turtle conservation,” Dodd said.
Jekyll needed funding and resources to survey sea turtle nesting each year, he said, and the state needed a place for stranded and injured turtle to be rehabilitated.
“At that point, when we got an animal washed up on the beach, we had to transport all the way to Florida … and sometimes in Florida they were full,” Dodd said.
Years of fundraising followed and eventually the center was opened in a historic structure on Jekyll.
The center has grown significantly since then to fully realize the mission its founders envisioned. It has stayed busy with visitors, some of whom travel to Jekyll solely for the opportunity to learn more about sea turtles. The center has also been a place for training and career building for many, Norton said.
“We’ve been able to engage a lot of visitors from all over the world and also have trained a lot of veterinary students, AmeriCorps members, interns, volunteers and staff over the years,” he said.
Visitors of all ages have fallen in love with the patients at the center, and many young students have discovered an interest there that has grown into a career working with wildlife.
“There’s a little girl that visits every year twice a year, and she stands by the window all day long for a week,” Norton said. “She wants to be a veterinarian.”
A young boy diagnosed with liver cancer had the chance to see a turtle named after him before it was released back into the ocean. He attended the event on Tybee Island before he passed away.
Thousands of turtles have been saved by the care they received at the center, where they have the time, space and resources to rest and heal before returning to the ocean.
“There’s a lot of animals...that you don’t think have a chance and then they actually pull through,” Norton said.
The center today serves as an important sea turtle education and rehab center in Georgia, Dodd said.
“Georgia’s blessed in the sense that we have all these undeveloped beaches … but the downside to that is people don’t have the opportunity to interact with the sea turtles’ nests,” he said. “Jekyll is one of the few places on the coast where we still have significant turtle nesting and people can have access.”
The center is critical to the state’s overall recovery efforts long-term, Dodd said, and that would not have happened without Norton’s work.
“It was his vision, and he’s the one that really was the driving force behind it,” he said.
As a parting gift for the center’s founder, staff installed a new plaque last week with a quote from Norton that encompasses his original vision. It reads: “Our hope is to not only help this charismatic species survive, but to watch it thrive.”