Marathon High School may have its own cheerleading squad, but just down the road there’s a self-described “cheerleader for turtles.” Meet Bette Zirkelbach, manager of The Turtle Hospital in Marathon.

Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Zirkelbach’s initial career was a far cry from her current day job; she began by running her family’s business, an industrial powder coating plant. However, as she described, all her time away from her job was consumed by animal-related volunteer work, from bird and marine mammal rescue programs to raising service dogs. “All my joy came not from my income, but from my volunteer work,” she said. “In 2000, I made the decision to leave that life and come work for a nonprofit.”

Zirkelbach’s Keys story began at Dolphin Research Center, where she worked for 12 years, ending as director of facilities. When an opportunity with Richie Moretti at the Turtle Hospital arose just a few miles down the road, she was convinced to make the move.

According to Zirkelbach, Moretti brought her on board to help make the nonprofit hospital self-sustaining, and the results speak for themselves. “We used to see 75 people a day, but now we can see up to 320 a day when we’re in season. Just last year, our nonprofit managed to purchase this land from Richie so the hospital can live on. I used to be a cheerleader in school; now I’m a cheerleader for the turtles.”

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you? I’m an artist and a baker. I actually painted the bar at the Cracked Conch Cafe.

What are you involved in outside of the Turtle Hospital? I’m a runner. Running is my therapy; I’ve done the Keys 100 relay for the last four years and was a part of my first all-female team this year. I’m an executive member of the Florida Keys Area Committee. I have two teenage children, so I do as much with them as I can.

If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be? Dr. Sylvia Earle. She has an organization called Mission Blue, and she’s done amazing things for our oceans. There are parts of the ocean defined as “Hope Spots” that are protected because of her work.

What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about Marathon? Probably the same thing: you can’t go anywhere without knowing someone. That’s a great or horrible thing, depending on the day.

What’s the craziest turtle rescue story you have? There was a 600-pound leatherback turtle entangled in a trap line. I went out with the Coast Guard and got in the water and disentangled it. That was surreal.

If you could add one big-name chain restaurant or store to Marathon, what would it be? I wouldn’t! I love Marathon how it is.

What’s the weirdest app you have on your phone? Games for Cats. My daughter was fostering for Forgotten Felines, and it was a great way to keep the kittens occupied.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.