MARATHON, Florida Keys — Those 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-figured yet stalwart woman from Delaware, Zirkelbach is the manager of Marathon's Turtle Hospital and has been one of the driving forces behind the unique facility since 2012. Previously, 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, Zirkelbach and her trained staff can be called to meet critical care patients arriving at the hospital in one of its two ambulances. If impactions or internally trapped air have caused a turtle to float, 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.
The hospital's 28-year history involves the rescue and rehabilitation of more than 1,300 injured and sick sea turtles and their release back to the wild. Turtle releases often take place at beach locations in the Keys, close to where the turtle was first rescued, and the public is invited.
"People leave inspired ... inspired to want to do something," said Zirkelbach. "They start to look at life beyond what we're doing [at the turtle hospital]. I think it helps to broaden their horizons and they start to think about human impact on our environment. Sea turtles are like our canaries in the coal mine."
Living consciously has been a part of Zirkelbach'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 I am not able to consciously look an animal in the eye and kill it, then I do not have the right to eat it," she said, although 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 Zirkelbach, who majored in biology during college 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 am doing with my days."
It's also fortunate for the people around Zirkelbach, whose firecracker energy and electric smile seemingly act as a magnet for other enterprising go-getters.
Zirkelbach's often-harried days can include animal rescues and caring for turtles around the clock, while also involving the medical and public relations aspects of the Turtle Hospital. Ninety-minute hospital tours offered several times daily convey the importance of the nonprofit's mission to rescue and rehabilitate but also to educate.
Zirkelbach maintains balance by imparting positive efforts and energies where most beneficial.
"Running the Old Seven Mile Bridge is my favorite thing to do," she said. "Mornings I can see spotted eagle rays feeding in the water below, tarpon or on osprey landing at the end of the bridge — I see more life there than anywhere."
Her inspiration comes from hopefuls and forward-thinkers including Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of the world's leading female scuba divers and marine researchers.
"[Dr. Earle says] Our time right now is a sweet spot on the planet, if we pay attention now," Zirkelbach said. "So I feel a responsibility globally to our planet."
Equally strong is her sense of dedication to the turtles.
"I have all these babies with flippers," she said. "My life is full."
Zirkelbach's passion and energy she devotes to the sustained future of sea turtles is palpable.
Zirkelbach, left, fellow staff members and volunteers released Sandy, a 145-pound female loggerhead sea turtle, Feb. 9, 2013. Sandy, was inadvertently hooked by an angler but was able to be returned to the wild after a surgical procedure to remove the hook and antibiotic therapy to prevent infection. Photo: Andy Newman
As a fun pasttime, Zirkelbach also baked "Sweet Bette" cupcakes and cakes, which she now squeezes in for friends' special occasions.