Yes, the man who has spent the last 25 years and $10 million of his own business profits fixing wounded sea turtles once happily ate his share of turtle steak.
Plenty of people did, before the federal government placed the turtles on the endangered species list in the early 1970s.
"When I was in Orlando, my favorite trips were over to the Keys to have turtle," said Richie Moretti, founder and director of the nonprofit Turtle Hospital in Marathon.
Go ahead and grimace, he tells people when they learn of his long-ago penchant for the turtle meat that, in a sherry-tinged soup helped make Key West famous. His conscience is clean.
"When there's only two cows, I won't eat them either," Moretti said is his trademark response to any disconcerting reactions.
Over the last quarter century, the Turtle Hospital at Mile Marker 48 has steadily grown into a national landmark for sea turtle survival.
That landmark could make a move south of U.S. 1 to Key West, with the nonprofit taking steps to persuade city leaders to provide it space at the Truman Waterfront.
There, Moretti envisions a 20,000-square-foot Turtle Hospital and education center, predicting a draw of 400,000 visitors each year, based on the current numbers that throng to Marathon.
It's still early and nothing is certain, but Moretti was pleased with the reception he got last week from members of the Truman Waterfront Advisory Committee, who are tasked with guiding the development of the city's downtown waterfront.
"The people of Key West will decide," said Moretti, who first raised the Truman Waterfront idea about three years ago.
This nonprofit wouldn't need any city money, Moretti pointed out.
"A lot of other people would want that area," he said. "We can actually, if the city were to give us the property, we could go ahead and put up a building and get going. We're not standing here with our hand out."
The move to Key West is about making sure that the Turtle Hospital continues to live, on public property, after Moretti is gone.
"I'm not getting any younger," he said on Saturday. "I have no grandchildren. These turtles are my grandchildren. I want to build something that lasts beyond me."
The nonprofit's staff would also like a hospital that doesn't flood in a hard rain, like the Marathon center does.
Once a simple evidence storage tank for Florida wildlife agencies, holding tarpon, snook and the like, the hospital today is a 90-percent self-sustaining nonprofit that attracts a daily average of 250 visitors who gladly fork over $15 for adult tickets and $5 for kids "And the school groups come in," said Moretti, founder and director of the licensed veterinarian clinic and educational center. "We have groups from all over the country. We're making so many people love turtles."
Moretti, 68, a New Jersey-bred businessman who once ran a Volkswagen repair and auto assembly plant in Orlando, has one of those classic What-brought-me-to-the-Keys stories.
In 1980, he and a couple of friends set out for Marathon with their fast boats in a rescue response to the Mariel boatlift, the mass exodus of Cubans who had left the Communist island for the United States only to land in perilous limbo.
"I was in Orlando; I had some friends up there, their parents died trying to get here from Cuba," he said. "I came down with two or three friends who had fast boats and offered to help.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the rest of the government said no thanks, threatening them with arrest if they brought a single Cuban onto land.
So Moretti went fishing for a week or two around Marathon. He quickly noticed that the local motels were failing, so in 1981 he bought the Buena Vista at Mile Marker 48.
Three years later, he gave himself retirement as a birthday present and moved to Marathon, where he reopened the motel as the Hidden Harbour.
The motel, at the time right next to Fanny's strip club, still had a 1948-era, 100,000-gallon saltwater pool in the back. Fish by fish, Moretti offered it as a sanctuary to some tarpon caught by locals.
Moretti in 1986 opened up the Turtle Hospital, eventually fueling it with the motel's income - at one point $200,000 a year.
School teachers started bringing their students, who in 1986 were obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and mini toy industry. They kept asking Moretti to bring a sea turtle to Marathon for them to check out.
"It was real accidental," Moretti said. "It was all about those children who wanted to see a turtle."
Turtles weren't something you could just get in 1986. Moretti was told by the experts that he could open a rehabilitation center if he wanted to have turtles around.
By 1988, Moretti's outfit was, by airplane, sending banged-up turtles to the mainland for surgeries to remove tumors. "We flew turtles back and forth," said Moretti. "Little by little, we got busier and busier. We've had so many great vets in the Keys volunteering."
That was almost 1,300 turtles ago.
He later opened a string of video rental stores, which he sold off in 1991, using the profits to buy the neighboring strip club, which is now the educational center.
Today, Moretti's commercial rental properties in Orlando pay the nonprofit's bills.
The educational programs started out with Moretti teaching the basics to kindergarten and first-grade students.
"Basic nice things," Moretti said. "Like, when you take something out of the ocean, hold your breath. When you have to breathe, put 'em back in."
Moretti lets the experts fix the turtles. The hospital's patients at present include 11 recovering sea turtles.
Colorado, a 160-pound adult male loggerhead, was brought in March 25 from Cudjoe Key suffering from a boat strike and propeller wounds.
Then there is Izzy, a 15-pound juvenile green sea turtle recovering from a November boat hit in Marathon Marina that damaged his left front flipper and left him with head trauma.
The Turtle Hospital's leaders would like to begin scientific research on the apparent virus that leaves the turtles coated with tumors, causes blindness and organ failure.
"I want to find out why they get sick," said Moretti. "Do research as well as fixing turtles. You always want to do more."
Moretti said the Turtle Hospital may keep a presence in Marathon if it moves down to Key West. Either way, the nonprofit continues to stick to its original mission.
"I love fixing turtles," said Moretti. "I want it to go on beyond me.If this was done in Key West, it would last forever."