Cape Coral ‘Tortoise Guy’ is helping out, one burrow at a time
Evelyn Longa, Special to Fort Myers News-Press
When Rick Aliperti purchased a piece of land in Cape Coral in 2005, he had never seen a tortoise or a tortoise burrow before.
Today, he’s affectionately known as the “Tortoise Guy” in his neighborhood because of the generous steps he has taken to protect the tortoises that live next to his property in Southwest Cape.
Aliperti came here from Long Island, N.Y., a place where you could say the traffic moved about a slow as a tortoise moves.
He had had enough of that.
“A 20-minute drive would take 1 1/2 to 2 hours,” Aliperti said. “When my daughter graduated from high school, we told her we would be moving.”
That was the beginning of an adventure in learning more about the life of a tortoise than he ever imagined.
Soon after purchasing the lot for his house, Aliperti said he noticed three PVC pipes sticking up from the ground. A neighbor explained to him that tortoises were nesting on the property. Before starting construction, Aliperti had to have someone on the site to document the excavation of the burrows. And to slow things down even more, the burrows couldn’t be dug up after the temperatures dropped below 50 degrees.
Gopher tortoises are considered a threatened species in Florida and both the tortoises and burrows are protected under state law.
Aliperti said one reason he chose Cape Coral as the place he wanted to live was so he could be somewhere that had more of a natural setting. Southwest Cape is still somewhat undisturbed, including 50 acres of land directly behind Aliperti’s house that the City of Cape Coral owns.
Those 50 acres of native pineland are known as the Oasis Woods. The land is next to Oasis Charter School and Ida Baker High School. Aliperti said a lot of different forms of wildlife live on that land – foxes, quail, bobcats, coyotes, eagles, great horned owls and rabbits. The land has also been designated an eagle nesting zone.
It’s not quite Wild Kingdom, but Aliperti understands more than anyone the importance of preserving and protecting the land.
He’s all in and, if there was ever any doubt about that, he set himself apart by purchasing the lot adjacent to his home in an effort to protect the tortoises that live on that lot.
“We watched the tortoises there go from just a couple to several,” Aliperti said. “And nobody could build there because each year there would be more and more tortoises there.”
He said there are now at least 30 tortoises and it would be expensive to relocate them.
“Long story short, the builder who owns the property sold it to me with the goal of preserving the land and protecting the tortoises,” Aliperti said.
Aliperti said he used family inheritance money to buy the land. He calls the land “Mary Jane’s Preserve” in memory of his mother.
And it’s certainly been a labor of love with Aliperti having to clear the land to make it more inhabitable for the tortoises. Using machinery is not permitted where there are burrows. The land was covered with Brazilian pepper plants, Aliperti said.
“The goal was to give them better access to the saw palmettos in the 50 acres for burrowing,” Aliperti said. “I’m already beginning to see them roam back and forth between the two.”
Was Aliperti destined to have this connection with the tortoises on Cape Coral?
He makes pottery and long before moving to the Cape he started making tortoises.
“I was making tortoises and turtles prior to knowing how important they would be in my life,” he said.
Looking ahead, Aliperti’s vision is for the city to buy the property from him down the road so it can be combined with Oasis Woods and serve as an entry point to the bigger park. He said he’s made a 10-year commitment to maintain the land and to keep it “as pristine as I possibly can.”
He also sees a great opportunity for hands-on education for students, from STEM programs at local schools to the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts. Hiking trails could be made to track and monitor the tortoises.
“Let’s give young people an opportunity to marvel and explore,” he said. “I want to see the benefit of the tortoises having a great piece of property. It’s just a great feeling. It is fascinating when what we do every day affects nature. I look at this and say this is native, what can we do to preserve it and have people from all over the world say, ‘Let’s go to Cape Coral. They have a nice nature park.’”
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