A photograph of Rick Hudson facing a Giant Aldabra Tortoise, and scratching under its chin.

Lives Of Purpose

Revival instinct

With muddy hands and a full heart, Rick Hudson, R'77, has tendered a lifetime of fieldwork and advocacy to save freshwater turtles and tortoises from extinction and restore their numbers in the wild.
An illustration of a radiated tortoise

In a home in southern Madagascar, 10,000 radiated tortoises were stacked like sacks of potatoes, crowded and starving and dying. The wild creatures with ancient lineage and striking starburst patterns on their shells were set to be smuggled to China, destined for private collections or soup pots.

Half a world away, Rick Hudson, R’77, was back on campus for the first time in decades, giving a talk in conjunction with a special exhibit on fossil turtles at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, when he got word of the seizure. He started fielding calls and making connections, mounting a response to help save these members of a critically endangered species.

“That is what people know about me — that when there is a wildlife crisis, I’m going to be down in the trenches fighting for them and making stuff happen,” said the conservation biologist who has worked for 42 years in Texas at the Fort Worth Zoo — the zoo’s longest-serving employee.

Crises happen often. With more than half of the approximately 350 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises on the planet threatened with extinction, Hudson and the nonprofit organization he helped found, the Turtle Survival Alliance, have developed programs and partnerships to rescue, breed, and reintroduce turtles and tortoises in more than 20 countries from Myanmar to Colombia to the United States.

The alliance’s mission is zero turtle extinctions in the 21st century — a bold proclamation in a world rife with international animal trafficking and challenges caused by climate change. But a combination of personal charm, data-driven expertise, and passion have positioned Hudson well to be their champion.

Said Hudson, “I don’t fight battles I can’t win.”

Rick Hudson as a child, holding a boa constrictor
Rick Hudson as a child growing up in southwestern Virginia
Courtesy Rick Hudson

Into the wild

Hudson’s childhood was filled with the creatures of the wild.

“I was forever with a bucket and a net, and if there was a pond around, I was going to be laying on my stomach trying to catch frogs and tadpoles,” he said. Only when the dinner bell rang would he make his way out of the woods. At the age of 12, he was featured in the local newspaper for his backyard menagerie and assertion he would grow up to work in a zoo.

Hudson was raised in the town of Stuart, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the southwestern part of the state. Residents of the town of less than 2,000 counted on the local pharmacy founded by his grandfather and passed down to his dad. Hudson remembers his father often being called away in the middle of the night to help a family with an emergency. As payment, he would sometimes accept handmade quilts and canned vegetables.

If Hudson inherited his work ethic from his father, then from his charismatic mother he got a desire to always do more. A Richmond native, the stunning young woman had been a fashion model at Miller & Rhoads, the iconic downtown department store. After marrying and moving to rural Stuart, she started a column in the local paper and a radio show. She taught young Rick the art of conversation and a way of politely commanding attention — etiquette tips she also shared with the local children.

Every time I walked into the lab, he was sitting around reading snake books.

“It was not unusual for me to come home to find girls walking around with books on their heads, learning how to carry themselves proper,” Hudson said. “She was always disappointed because I never tried to dress that well — one shirt tail was always out, and I was always in jeans.”

But she supported his fascination for animals. On rainy days, the two would jump in the car and drive slowly along the roads, looking for box turtles to rescue. Even though she had a primal fear of snakes, she would not say no when young Rick brought them home. “If you’re going to keep snakes, your father’s going to build you a place out back,” Hudson recalled his mom saying.

His love of animals led him to study biology at Richmond. “But I was so distracted in college,” he said. “All I wanted to do was to keep snakes.”

It was a vertebrate zoology course taught by William Woolcott that finally focused his interest. Hudson describes Woolcott as a crusty old scientist who could spin a good story and explicate the importance of systematics, the science of naming and organizing organisms based on common ancestry. Among those long lists of animals, Hudson saw his future.

After graduation, Hudson enrolled in a veterinary technician program at Blue Ridge Community College and interned at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore to gain the experience he needed to compete for a zoo job.

Among the positions he applied for was assistant curator of herpetology at the Fort Worth Zoo. When the committee called his references, a former employer had all good things to say — except for this: “Every time I walked into the lab, he was sitting around reading snake books.”

The zoo decided Hudson was just who they wanted.

Today, positions of curator and conservationist are often held by scientists with advanced and specialized degrees. Hudson moved up through the ranks with his bachelor’s degree from Richmond and a desire to get things done.

Nothing illustrated this more than the 1990 rediscovery of the Jamaican iguana. Thought since the 1940s to be extinct, the iguana was rediscovered on the island when a hunting dog retrieved an animal. Researchers then found nesting sites — in a location heavy with invasive mongoose, which were eating their hatchlings. The aging population was hanging on but not growing.

How it started/how it's going, iguana edition. Rick, releasing a Jamaican iguana in 1998, and Rick with a blue iguana in the Fort Worth Zoo, where he is based today.
Left, courtesy of Rick Hudson; right by Olaf Growald

Hudson was among those who used his connections and charisma to network on behalf of the iguana. He founded the Lizard Advisory Group within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Iguana Specialist Group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the International Iguana Foundation in 2001, for which he still serves as executive director. He organized a workshop in Kingston, Jamaica, to plan a recovery strategy and then launched a worldwide fundraising effort to support a program to raise and release young animals and breed adults in captivity.

“It quickly became one of the best-known conservation success stories of our time,” said Hudson.

“We took a species from thought-to-be-extinct to rediscovery to on the road to recovery within, say, 10 years.”

Success in reintroducing the iguana to the wild also solidified his role as an international conservationist who could mobilize both people and funds.

“I think the zoo really started to trust that my instincts were good, and they, I think more than anything, recognized my passion,” Hudson said.

These traits helped Hudson bring together keepers and conservationists in 1999 to mount a concerted effort to combat the Asian turtle crisis, where species throughout the continent were at risk of disappearing, said Anders Rhodin, founder and director of the Chelonian Research Foundation.

“A successful person has an incredible passion and incredible drive to make a difference, to feel like you can affect the world and not just your own backyard,” Rhodin said. “And not just through your personal actions, but in how you inspire other people to join the cause to fight for what you believe is right. ... That’s what Rick does.”

Hudson bridges that gap between those who have the facilities and scientific knowledge to raise animals in captivity and those who search for local populations and understand their habitats. It requires bringing together a lot of people, a lot of data, and a lot of money.

“Elephants and tigers get a lot more bandwidth than turtles do,” Andrew Walde, chief operating officer for the Turtle Survival Alliance, said, “but it’s all the same — it’s a matter of convincing the people that this is their resource, and they want to protect it.”

Since Walde joined the Turtle Survival Alliance 15 years ago, the organization’s annual budget has grown from $400,000 to a little more than $3 million.

Said Walde, “People back Rick.”

The solution is local

To save the radiated tortoise, Hudson has learned to build schools.

Radiated tortoises are native to southern Madagascar and are the most trafficked tortoise in the world. Adults are about the size of basketballs, their high-domed shells emanating golden stars on a dark surface. They can live for well over 100 years. They crawl through the spiny forest underbrush, eating plants and distributing seeds for new plant life to grow. To get them out of the country, poachers pluck them from their habitats, then smugglers slip them into coat pockets, stack them in suitcases, or load them onto boats.

Make no mistake: The battle to save species will be won or lost at the community level.
Rick Hudson, R'77

Hudson recalled a trip to Madagascar in 2010. The scientists drove through native habitat for radiated tortoises, and he got out to see them up close and take photos.

“All of a sudden, the village leaders surrounded us and asked us what we were doing, why would we mess with the tortoise,” he said.

A light bulb went off in his head, and he thought, “Something special is going on here.”

His deliberate and easy manner of conversing helped Hudson forge relationships with the local leaders. They told him of their protective taboo, or fady. They see the tortoises as an embodiment of their ancestors — and therefore something to be protected.

Hudson realized an opportunity and asked the village leaders what the community needed for continuing its tradition of protecting tortoises and their habitat. The leaders answered: a school.

So now, in addition to raising funds to protect tortoises, Hudson also raises money for school construction. Schools are a tangible symbol of the trust the Turtle Survival Alliance and the village leaders have placed in one another.

“It was a huge ceremony when we launched the first school,” Hudson said. “Their Ministry of Education got behind us and hired a teacher, and it was just a big deal. All these local politicians showed up, and they’re saying, ‘Well, who would have thought that the lowly tortoise could enhance a community like this.’

“That’s what we wanted. We wanted this to be a shining example for locals to show that protecting tortoises can benefit your community.”

The alliance is now building its third school.

It is also finding new ways to support communities that often face extreme poverty. In 2021, the effects of climate change ravaged the country, with extreme drought and famine causing death to people and their livestock. The Turtle Survival Alliance needed to feed its captive tortoises, so it paid locals to collect the pads of the invasive prickly pear cactus, which the radiated tortoise loves to eat.

It also hired locals as keepers to care for the daily needs of the animals and security guards to protect them from poachers. The relationship is such now, Hudson said, that when a poacher offers local persons money for catching tortoises, the locals instead turn the poacher over to the authorities.

In some ways, local relationships are more predictable than the international laws established in recent decades to curb animal trafficking. Those rely on law enforcement and courts that don’t always follow the rules and often lack resources to stop the smuggling, Hudson said. “Make no mistake: The battle to save species will be won or lost at the community level.”

He holds up partnerships such as in Madagascar as shining successes. Since the original seizure of 10,000 radiated tortoises in 2018, the number of animals cared for by the Turtle Survival Alliance in Madagascar has grown to 26,000. It has established rescue centers and breeding programs for turtles and tortoises in Madagascar and at sites around the world, including the United States. This creates an assurance population, helping to reduce the risk that a species will go extinct.

The goal is to have the tortoises again roam their native habitats. Last year, the alliance released — in cooperation with the Malagasy government and local officials — the first 1,000 radiated tortoises into the wild. The community gathered to celebrate with dancing. Radio trackers on 50 of the animals will allow scientists to continue to check in on their progress and gather data on how they move about their new home. Another 2,000 are set to be released in December.

Hudson is making plans to travel back to Madagascar this fall for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset. He’s looking forward to meeting with donor agencies and finalizing negotiations for the Turtle Survival Alliance to begin co-managing a protected reserve supporting one of the last strongholds of radiated tortoises. “We have to draw a line in the sand around this population if we are going to save this species,” he said.

Sharing the passion

Most people have a childhood memory of a turtle. It could be the one you caught in your neighborhood pond, the box turtle you helped cross the road, or a row of turtles sunning themselves on a log that remains in your brain like a postcard from your favorite summer vacation.

Such memories help conservationists. Craig Stanford, a biological anthropologist at the University of Southern California, calls it “the moral reason, the personal reason” people should care about endangered species such as turtles. Said Hudson, “Something about turtles just resonates with a lot of people.”

In 2018, while on Richmond’s campus for the museum talk, Hudson stopped by the classroom of Jennifer Sevin, a visiting lecturer of biology, where nonmajors were getting an introduction to ecology. Sevin said it was especially important for the students to hear how Hudson had adapted his career to the changing needs in conservation, starting with his interest in reptiles and moving into a global position where he networks with national governments and local citizens to care for endangered species.

Elephants and tigers get a lot more bandwidth than turtles do, but it's all the same — it's a matter of convincing the people that this is their resource and they want to protect it.
Andrew Walde
COO, Turtle Survival Alliance

“It really hit home to them that everyone has a role to play in conservation,” said Sevin, who is a founding member of the Collaborative to Combat the Illegal Trade in Turtles. “This is one way that he can help ensure that future generations can share in that passion.”

Hudson is interested in attracting more people to turtle conservation in much the same way that he was brought in. Among his mentors was John Behler, curator of herpetology at the Bronx Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Society. Behler was also the scientist who introduced Hudson to the tortoises of Madagascar. “He and I shared the same passion for Madagascar,” said Hudson, “and when he passed away in 2006, I kind of picked up the torch.” In 2013, Hudson was honored with the Behler Turtle Conservation Award, the “Nobel Prize” of their trade, named for his mentor.

Walde, chief operating officer of the Turtle Survival Alliance, is a part of the next generation of turtle conservation scientists. But when Walde looks over his shoulder, there’s no cadre of heirs apparent. Hudson said he thinks about this a lot. In Asia — the epicenter of the turtle extinction crisis — there’s less emphasis in college on the natural sciences. In the United States, those achieving advanced degrees often don’t look to nonprofits for a career path. Those drawn to turtle conservation often don’t have the skills necessary to protect them.

“If we can’t inspire and train the next generation of turtle conservationists, we will not be successful in preventing further extinctions,” Hudson said. “My goal is to change that scenario and establish a series of training workshops to improve capacity for turtle research and conservation, especially in Africa and Asia.”

Those with a passion for the animals will get field training and learn the science of field research, habitat protection, and restoring wild populations. Hudson will be among the mentors, helping ensure the critical work of species survival continues.

“That’s where I want to spend the last years of my career,” said Hudson, who plans to step down from the zoo within the year.

Actually, Hudson has lots of plans for his semi-retirement. He’ll move back to Virginia, where he inherited a family home. He’ll travel — not just for work, but also for pleasure. “I’ve never been to Argentina or Portugal — I have a long bucket list of places I want to visit, most of them known for their exceptional cuisine,” he said.

He helped transition the Turtle Survival Alliance from an organization known for “plugging the dike” — responding to crises — to an organization that also is expert in habitat protection and species recovery, helping keep wild animals wild.

Rick Hudson and a Giant Aldabra tortoise
Photograph by Olaf Growald

Part of that transition is about telling good stories — taking the show on the road, so to speak. At a summer event for the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Indiana, Hudson stood before donors and told of the program in Madagascar. He shared a video showing a tortoise slowly turning its head to look into the camera, followed by a trio tromping off on stubby legs into their new forest home. At a presentation at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, Hudson received the 2021 Commitment to Conservation Award in part for his work in Madagascar.

For all the successes conservationists have had — including the Burmese star tortoises and the northern river terrapin of India and Bangladesh — the threats continue to grow. Climate change puts stress on habitats, but it also affects the very biology of life. The sex of turtles is dependent on the temperature of incubation. “Are females going to be able to adjust where they lay and how deep they lay to accommodate that?” Hudson asked.

And the turtle poaching crisis is not going away. “I can’t retire until I get Madagascar on track,” he said.

It’s not all work. Hudson reflects on the lineage of the animals for which he cares and finds incredible energy in the pursuit of their survival.

“I look into a tortoise’s eyes, and I see a sentient being, wisdom and timelessness. They are ancient survivors of bygone days, and that’s ... why so many people are inspired by tortoises,” he said. “It’s that steady, slow pace that has gotten them here, but they’re up against a rapidly developing world where they are not going to survive unless we can change things. They have been revered throughout history but are now often reduced to commodities. So, we’ve got to change people’s thinking about turtles and tortoises.”

That work, he said, will never be done.

Michelle Tedford is a freelance writer based in Dayton, Ohio, who spent her childhood with a bucket and a net.