People who know Bette Zirkelbach have learned not to act surprised when she responds to a “Hey, what are you doing?” query with an answer like, “Well, I just finished super-gluing some turtles.”
A slim yet stalwart woman from Delaware, Bette is the manager of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital — and she’s been one of the driving forces behind the unique facility since 2006. Before that, she spent more than a decade at Marathon’s Dolphin Research Center as director of facilities.
The Turtle Hospital treats an average of 50 to 75 turtles per year. At any hour of any given day, Bette and her trained staff can be called to meet critical care patients arriving at the hospital in one of its two ambulances (yes, ambulances for turtles — seriously!).
If impactions or internally trapped air have caused a turtle to float, the staff uses an animal-safe, epoxy-like “super glue” to attach small weights to the patient’s shell to help it to dive and descend.
During its 27-year history, the hospital has been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of a stunning 1,300-plus injured and sick sea turtles — and their release back to the wild. Turtle releases often take place at beach locations in the Florida Keys, close to where the turtle was first rescued, and the public is invited.
“People leave inspired … inspired to want to do something,” said Bette. “I think it helps to broaden their horizons and they start to think about human impact on our environment.”
Living consciously has been a part of Bette’s moral fabric since she was in her twenties.
On Earth Day 1990 in Washington, D.C., after hearing disturbing dialog about cattle farming methods, she became a vegetarian.
“If it has a face and I have to look it in the eye, I cannot kill it or eat it,” she said, though adding that she and her two children Bing (11) and Belle (9) embrace an environmentally friendly “pescatarian” diet that includes fish and crustaceans.
The 90s also were a time when she had to choose between continuing to manage her family’s successful industrial business or devoting her life to her passion — animals. By then, she had volunteered for countless hours with marine mammal stranding and wild bird rescue networks, as well as training service dogs in the Northeast.
“The family business was challenging, but taught me good management skills and I became a great networker,” said Bette, who got her college degree in biology and was largely self-taught in business skills.
“I was brave enough to leave a six-digit income and follow my heart,” she said. “Now I feel good about what I’m doing with my days.”
It’s also good for the people around Bette — whose firecracker energy and electric smile seemingly act as a magnet for other enterprising go-getters.
Her often-harried days can include animal rescues and caring for turtles around the clock, plus work on Turtle Hospital medical and public relations elements. Ninety-minute hospital tours, offered several times daily, convey the importance of the nonprofit’s mission to rescue and rehabilitate (and also to educate people).
Despite her packed schedule, Bette maintains balance by imparting positive efforts and energies wherever they’re most beneficial.
“Running the Old Seven Mile Bridge is my favorite thing to do,” she advised. “Mornings I can see two tarpon in the water, or an osprey landing at the end of the bridge — I see more life there than anywhere.”
Her inspiration comes from forward-thinkers like Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of the world’s leading female scuba divers and marine researchers.
“Our time right now is a sweet spot on the planet, if we pay attention now,” Bette explained. “So I feel a responsibility globally to our species.”
Equally strong is her sense of dedication to the turtles.
“I have all these babies with flippers,” she said. “My life is full.”