December 08, 2022

Former zookeeper seeks to share passion for birds with others

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts about Debi Talbott.

“Somewhere, there’s always a bird to watch.”

That is a sentiment that Debi Talbott has when it comes to birds, a topic she is very passionate about.

After over three decades spent working as a zookeeper, Talbott has retired and is ready to share her love and knowledge of birds with those in Clarke County by way of monthly bird walks at East Lake Park.

Start as a zookeeper

A 1975 graduate of Clarke Community Schools, Talbott joined the Navy in 1976, attending basic training in Orlando, Florida. She was active duty in the Navy before joining the Air Force Reserves.

Using her G.I. Bill, Talbott put herself through college at the University of South Florida in Tampa where she majored in zoology. It was during that time that a friend who was studying zoo communications approached Talbott about an opening at Busch Gardens in Tampa.

“She came up to me and said, there’s a job position open in the education department…you would be so good at it,” said Talbott.

Talbott decided to apply, and got the job.

She then spent a year working in zoo education, doing animal demonstrations on stage, teaching workshops, zoo camps, and whatever else came up. When a zookeeper position in Busch Gardens’ Veldt - a veldt, is a wide, grassy plain found in southernmost Africa - came open, Talbott applied and began working as a keeper.

“That was really fun,” said Talbott, noting that she learned zookeeping from ‘cowboys,’ men who wore cowboy boots and big belt buckles, chewed tobacco, and taught her how to lasso.

Talbott was the first woman to ever work the feed truck on the Veldt, where she would feed the large animals like antelope, gazelle, giraffes, hippos, zebras, and rhinos. She also took care of two flocks of flamingos, one Chilean and one Caribbean, as well as a variety of other animals - capuchin monkeys, different varieties of macaws, reptiles, cranes, waterfowl, lions, tigers, leopards, orangutans, chimpanzees, and more.

The animal of most interest to Talbott, however, was birds.

About four years into her job at Busch Gardens, Talbott saw an ad in the American Association of Zoo Keepers magazine for National Zoo (which is part of the Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. They were looking for someone who they could plug into whatever department they might need help in. Talbott applied, and had a phone interview with Charlie Pickett and Paul Tomassoni, curator and assistant curator of National Zoo’s Bird House.

Two weeks later, Talbott received a call from the Smithsonian telling her that if she wanted the job, it was hers. Talbott moved from Florida to Maryland to begin her new job in March of 1990, and there she remained until her retirement in November of 2021.

“I feel really lucky that I was able to do that for 30 plus years,” said Talbott.

Bird House and Alice

At National Zoo’s Bird House, Talbott took care of nearly every kind of bird - ducks, spoonbills, kori bustards, Indian condors, ratites, owls, eagles, ostriches, birds of paradise, little birds, big birds, birds of prey, hand reared flamingos, just about everything but penguins, which require a specialized kind of keeper.

“I’ve swam with [penguins] in the Galapagos, but I’ve never cared for them,” said Talbott.

Talbott’s area of expertise when it comes to birds is that of cranes, a variety she came to work with closely.

While in Washington, D.C., Talbott learned how to perform artificial insemination (AI) on cranes, specifically Stanley, or blue, cranes. The Stanley cranes at National Zoo were not able to “figure out” how to reproduce on their own, so Talbott and others traveled to Fort Royal in Virginia, where work on specialized breeding of endangered species is carried out, to learn the process.

It was through the AI-ing of the Stanley cranes back at National Zoo that a Stanley crane named Alice was born - Alice, who Talbott describes as “her girl,” and who holds a very special place in Talbott’s heart.

Alice was one of two eggs being incubated by her parents in July of 2014. When the first egg containing her brother hatched, the parents turned all of their attention to that chick. From prior experience, it was expected that the second egg would not be fertilized, so it was removed from the nest after four days of no incubation. When picked up, however, Talbott could hear peeping from inside the shell, and the egg was placed into an incubator. The next day, out hatched Alice, a name chosen by a donor of the zoo.

Alice was hand raised by Talbott and others and imprinted on her keepers, which contributed to her attitude and willingness to be around people. Alice was known to “dance” by jumping and flapping her wings when around her people, and was used for meet-and-greet demonstrations for visitors of the zoo.

Just shy of Alice’s fifth birthday, Talbott noticed that Alice’s left ankle appeared to be swollen. X-rays revealed swelling and fluid around the soft tissue, and Alice was prescribed pain medication to see if that would help.

A few weeks later, the swelling was back and Alice began favoring her left leg. After more evaluation, the veterinary team decided to try non-invasive methods of addressing the issue, including a soft-wrap support of the leg and deep tissue laser therapy. A CT and ultrasound scan a couple of weeks later revealed that Alice had a torn ligament, which creates quality of life concerns in cranes as it will prevent walking. It was decided to create an orthotic leg brace for Alice to help stabilize the joint. However, the brace did not help as her keepers had hoped, and the only choice left for Alice was surgery.

In August 2019, Alice underwent the first-ever internal brace ligament augmentation on a Stanley crane. She had pins placed in her bone to help stabilize the joint to allow for it to heal, and Alice began her recovery in the zoo’s hospital. There, Alice enjoyed various enrichment activities including watching movies with a perceived fondness for musicals. Talbott said that ‘The Sound of Music’ was Alice’s favorite, specifically the scene with Julie Andrews singing on the mountainside.

After 12 weeks, the pins in Alice’s bone were removed, and she remained in the zoo’s hospital under observation to make sure she continued to recover. In December of 2019, Alice was finally able to return to the Bird House. To celebrate, Talbott made a cake for Alice out of crane pellets and water, and topped it with one of Alice’s favorite treats - crickets arranged to spell ALICE.

Alice was soon back to her dancing self, walking with a slight limp. In October of 2021, Alice began being unable to bear weight on her leg, and scans revealed a deformity of her tarsal and metatarsal bones. Her care team opted to perform a wedge ostectomy, which would ease the pressure on Alice’s leg. The procedure took place in late January 2022; Alice did not wake up from anesthesia.

Though Alice is gone, her memory lives on with Talbott, who has a vase with some of Alice’s tertial feathers on her mantlepiece. Alice’s brother, who was raised by their parents, currently lives at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, and Talbott plans to visit him at some point. A representative from Blank Park Zoo reported that Larry, named for Indian Pacer Larry Bird, is part of the zoo’s 2022 Species Survival Program. Like his sister, Larry’s favorite treats are also crickets, and grapes.

See part two in next week’s OST to learn about Talbott’s return to Iowa, birding, and conservation concerns.

Candra Brooks

A native of rural Union County, Candra holds a Bachelor's Degree in English from Simpson College and an Associate's Degree in Accounting from SWCC. She has been at the Osceola newspaper since October 2013, working as office manager before transitioning to the newsroom in spring 2022.