In Love With Turtles

Recently, The Early Show's Dave Price met Richard Ogust, a pet owner turned wildlife rehabilitator, sharing a piece of prime Manhattan real estate with some very fortunate reptiles.

He shares his New York apartment with "about 1,000, maybe 1,200. On last count" turtles, Ogust says.

In tanks that run from the floorboards to the rafters, nearly 120 different species of turtles and tortoises co-habitat in his Manhattan condo.

Ogust says, "Literally, these animals came out of the food markets in Ru-Yi-Li in Yunnan. And then a very small group of us arrange for them to be imported into the country."

He is buying them so someone else won't.

He says, "These, I'm buying. At a much higher price than they would sell for in the food markets."

It was at a restaurant in Chinatown where Ogust's love affair with the turtle began. He went up to the buffet and noticed something in the tank. The next day he returned and ordered the turtle to go…minus the soup.

"She was extremely beautiful and I was just riveted on her," Ogust says, "I fell in love with a turtle. One animal. And she was pregnant, which I didn't know at the time."

He named her The Empress and she has been living with Ogust for 10 years now.

Holding his turtle, Ogust says, "Her disposition is so moving. Except that she really wants to get away from me right now."

Asked if he could have done the same with a puppy rather than with 1,000 turtles, Ogust says, "This could have been anything. It was just at that point in my life, it happened to be a turtle."

Which is a good thing for turtles. Ten years after rescuing his first turtle, Ogust's collection has developed an international reputation, which has attracted experts and encouraged more research, like tracking the ovulation cycle of an endangered species.

Pointing at a turtle, Ogust says, "This turtle was thought to be extinct since 1985. This is one of the 25 most endangered species in the world. The largest group of them is in this room."

But not for long. The better part of 50-acres in New Jersey will soon be transformed into The Tewksbury Institute of Herpetology.

Once complete, the institute, which is being constructed by volunteers on weekends, will not only house all of Ogust's turtles, but more than 1,000 more from eight other private collectors.