“Talk the talk, walk the walk” perfectly describes Big Pine Key resident Harry Appel.
The well-known Florida Keys animal activist’s commitment to environmental and conservation issues extends beyond his love for animals and marine life. If there is a chance an item can be recycled, repurposed or reused, Harry has found a way to do it.
He calls it living mindfully.
Harry believes that how-to knowledge came from his maternal grandmother—native of Siberia, Russia—when he was young.
“Every summer I spent two months with my grandmother, and she taught me that nothing goes to waste,” Harry recalls. “She not only washed and reused cellophane from packages, but she used the Styrofoam trays for art, and every scrap of food went to composting. We had very little trash to take out.”
A New Jersey native, Harry first visited the Keys in 1974. He fell in love with its then-rural aspect and the year-round beautiful weather.
After a career in automotive electronics, the founder of Appel Automotive in Voorhees, New Jersey, moved to Big Pine Key in 2005. He and his partner-fiancée, Jennifer DeMaria, bought a boutique hotel where they often vacationed.
The former owner was an environmentalist the couple admired. She ran the kind of establishment they wanted.
“I told her if she ever wanted to sell, I wanted to be her first call,” Harry says.
The couple had been looking to buy a bed-and-breakfast in New Jersey, but cold winters altered their plans. The beauty of the Keys quickly won out.
Today, the eco-friendly boutique hotel, Deer Run on the Atlantic, has earned the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s highest “Four-Palm” designation for protecting the state’s natural resources.
Guests are offered an all-vegan menu and a healthy serving of environmental education.
“My job embraces sustainable tourism,” Harry says. “My best thing is not just to talk about it, but to set the example.”
Harry’s mission is not only to save and protect wildlife, but to remind locals and guests about their impact on the environment. His education about Keys turtles began in an unconventional way when he was using a machine to remove seagrass from the beach.
“I knew about the turtles, but I wasn’t that educated about them,” Harry explains. “Beach walkers told me I couldn’t use the machine on the beach because it would disturb turtle nests. Being the inquisitive person I am, I wanted to know more.”
Seeing Save-A-Turtle volunteers in their bright yellow shirts patrolling the beaches was the impetus for Harry to join the group.
His beach walking has evolved into a lot more the past 16 years. He is president of Save-A-Turtle of the Florida Keys Inc.—a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization that works to protect endangered and threatened sea turtle species and their habitats.
In addition to his work with Save-A-Turtle, Harry serves as an adviser with the Key Deer Protection Alliance and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“When you are an animal activist, you can’t get burned out,” he says. “I love being their voice because they don’t have one.”
Creating awareness remains a primary focus, especially through educational endeavors and partnerships such as one with world-renowned marine artist Wyland, who created exclusive art to raise funds for Save-A-Turtle. Community outreach also includes an educational trailer often taken to schools and events.
“It’s amazing that people who live a block from the ocean don’t know about sea turtles,” Harry says. “We did an outreach program for Broward County children, and they were mesmerized. Many of them didn’t know there were sea turtles on their beaches. We had their full attention.”
Harry’s role includes working with the movie industry when filming happens in the Keys. For the next few months, he and other volunteers are making sure turtle nests are OK as the movie “Bad Monkey,” starring Vince Vaughn, gets underway.
Harry says awareness campaigns alone are not enough.
“Our Earth is in dire straits,” he says. “We all need to focus on an authentic, sustainable path and live mindfully.”
Despite everyone’s efforts, sea turtle nesting is in decline.
“Their food sources are going away because of pollution, boat strikes and rising seas,” Harry says. “Far more needs to be done to protect all animals, including wildlife, marine life and their habitat.”
As a grandfather, Harry says he has a moral obligation for future generations. He feels an urgent need to be as involved as possible, and hopes his environmental actions inspire others.
“Get involved in community causes,” he urges. “Think about more than yourself and your own immediate circle of life.”