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Turtle captivity has scientist, foes at loggerheads

Nearly 30 years ago, University of North Carolina marine scientist Frank Schwartz lifted two sea turtle eggs out of a sand-filled box and gently placed them in an incubator to hatch.

If he were discovered doing the same thing today, Schwartz might go to jail or at least pay a hefty fine. But he collected his eggs - unearthed from an Emerald Isle nest - long before anyone had heard of the Endangered Species Act or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.Three decades later, Schwartz still has seven loggerhead turtles in holding tanks at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in More-head City, and a long-simmering dispute has survived with them. For years, students and administrators have pleaded with Schwartz to transfer the turtles to an aquarium or a more humane set-ting. In the 1970s, students even carried out a midnight raid to free the animals, which are kept in 14-by-18-foot tanks with less than 3 feet of water.

Protected by the thick skin of his tenure, however, Schwartz has refused to back down. Shrugging off his detractors, the 67-year-old biologist insists his test subjects are an essential part of his research. He also notes that in July, UNC's animal care committee found that the turtles were receiving "acceptable" care.

"The wolves are always at the door," Schwartz says. "The only way to study the turtles is to have them in captivity . . . You can't stand there with your hand over your brow and watch them in the ocean."

Schwartz arrives at work before dawn, sticks to his research and no longer teaches or advises students.

One turtle survives from the original batch that came from the nest on Emerald Isle. The other six were hatched in 1977 from eggs he obtained from Florida and North Carolina.

A year after Schwartz hatched his last eggs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed turtles on the endangered species list. At the time, he had about 20 turtles. Then he lost nine in the early 1970s, he says, when students sneaked them out of their tanks, took them to the beach and released them in the ocean.

In 1988, a graduate student named Frank Wilson took a different approach. In a letter-writing campaign, he charged that their pens, especially the indoor winter tanks, were too small. He also charged that they were living in their own feces.

"They sometimes had sores on their flippers," recalls Wilson, now a lawyer with the U.S. Department of the Interior in Portland, Ore. "They lived these miserable lives."

Wilson's campaign drew the attention of university animal care inspectors, who began checking the tanks regularly. It also drew the ire of Schwartz, who said Wilson was a "rabble rouser."

Schwartz publishes regularly but not in well-known journals. He's not a prominent figure among turtle researchers. Although no one knows for sure, Schwartz may be the only university scientist in the country who confines sea turtles for long-term research.

"As far as I know, there aren't many, if any, holding turtles in captivity," says Charles Caillouet Jr., chief of the protected species branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Caillouet would know. The federal agency's lab in Galveston, Texas, is one of the few places still allowed to rear sea turtles, and it has been scaling back in recent years. Whereas the service once used about 2,000 hatchlings each year to test tagging systems and turtle-proof nets, it now uses about 400 and keeps them for less than two years, Caillouet says.