Environmental Gadfly a Solid Ally of Nature : Florida: Jack Rudloe has little patience with bureaucracy or with academia. He enjoys his reputation as a political outsider and oddball outdoorsman.
“Aaah!” yells Jack Rudloe, snatching his thumb from a moray eel’s slashing teeth.
A fish he’s trying to feed to the eel flips over his shoulder and splashes into another aquarium. Rudloe grimaces and clutches his hand.
It’s the fifth eel bite Rudloe has suffered since he closed the books on a short-lived college career three decades ago and moved to the beach to make a life working on shrimp boats with a collector’s bucket.
Rudloe, 51, has since built a business gathering creatures like the moray that bit him. He also has made a reputation as a political gadfly, environmental entrepreneur and never-say-die naturalist.
He and his wife, marine biologist Anne Rudloe, recently published their fourth article for National Geographic magazine, a cover story on sea turtles. His fascination with turtles, he says, grew from a boyhood love of dime-store pet turtles. As an adult he has traveled the world in pursuit of wild ones.
“Jack is a fascinating guy,” said Angus Cameron. “He collects specimens for research laboratories and university biology departments, but in the process he has become quite a technical expert himself.”
Cameron is a retired editor for Alfred A. Knopf Inc., the New York book publishers. He worked with Rudloe on several books. Rudloe’s work, said Cameron, “is probably the equivalent of a Ph.D. He’s an extremely knowledgeable and serious scientist. He’s been on a number of expeditions.”
He also has written five books, as well as articles for Audubon, Geo, Natural History and other magazines and has counted among his mentors zoologists from Harvard University, Boston University, the American Museum of Natural History, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He also has been the subject of television documentaries.
Though he makes his living from research and writing, Rudloe hated school and dropped out of college.
While still a student at Tallahassee’s Leon High School, he published an article in the March, 1961, Scientific American magazine titled “Experiments With Sensitive Plants, Cassia Nictitans.” It dealt with the leaf movements of the wild sensitive pea, which folds up when touched.
But his patience with academic life at Florida State University was measured in months. Classes interfered with work in his own greenhouse.
“I don’t particularly like the classroom approach,” he said. “I was trying to do research and flunking. They said go away.”
So he moved 35 miles south to the Gulf Coast, worked on shrimp trawlers, started his own laboratory, and became an unusual fixture in this fishing town of about 1,400 people in the Florida Panhandle.
Rudloe scorns the bureaucratic life as much as the academic. He calls government jobs “nothing but adult day care” and as an environmentalist he goes his own way. He rejects some of the Florida environmental movement’s causes, such as a proposed ban on commercial fishing with nets.
At Rudloe’s Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories, concrete saltwater tanks crawl, churn and splash with creatures he collects to sell to medical schools, universities, aquariums and other scientific or educational institutions.
The eel that bit Rudloe slithers back beneath the rocks. An assistant brings a mug of warm water. Rudloe, still grimacing, plunges his thumb into the mug.
The bite is all in a day’s work. Rudloe has gone on adventures such as the Woods Hole International Indian Ocean Expedition in Madagascar. He has tagged sea turtles throughout the world for migration studies and once grappled with an alligator.
Between trips, he fights other battles at home.
At the Coastal Restaurant, a Panacea lunch counter, the waitress calls him Jack and doesn’t have to ask his coffee order. Other diners perk up as he talks about planning a protest at a formerly public local beach that now charges 50 cents admission.
“I’ll go get arrested with you,” said Buck Winton of Crawfordville, waving from another table.
The talk moves to a fight against the closing of Otter Lake Park, a favorite Panacea hangout at nearby St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge. Developer Ronald Fred Crum walks over and sits next to Rudloe.
Crum has built a marina and other projects opposed by Rudloe.
“Jack’s cost me a lot of money,” Crum said. “But he’s right on this issue. The private citizen has to work under the law. The government has no law. Government is sick.”
Later in the day, Rudloe stops by Otter Lake. Two 10-foot alligators drift in the sun 100 feet out in the lake, gazing at the visitors walking down to the cypress-lined shore.
A decade earlier, Rudloe had by reflex leaped on a similar-sized alligator at Otter Lake when it pounced on his Airedale, Linda, as he and the dog splashed in the lake after jogging.
“I got it in a headlock,” he recalls. “Then I realized the tactile reality of what I had done. I stuck my thumbs in its eyes and punched it around.”
Both man and beast escaped uninjured. Rudloe wrote about the encounter for Reader’s Digest and Audubon magazine.
Rudloe knows that his opposition to environmental groups that want to ban commercial net fishing is open to conflict-of-interest criticism because the nets often bring in specimens he can use. But he insists that’s not his only motivation.
“If they ban the nets, these people have nothing around here,” he said.
While government regulations restrict net fishing, he adds: “We’re allowing just endless recreational boats. There are 700,000 boats roaring around out there, and they are the sacred cows.”
Rudloe lives in a frame house, shaded by tall trees, on pilings above storm water level. A wood dock reaches into the glittering Gulf.