Rescued Beluga Calf Has a Chance Thanks to Zoos

Estimated to be no more than four weeks old, a beluga calf was found stranded in Alaska’s Cook Inlet alone on September 30th. With no adult whales in sight, after an unsuccessful attempt to encourage the little male into deeper water and an assessment from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Carrie Goertz DVM, the decision was made to move him to Alaska’s only permitted marine mammal rescue center: the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Currently also caring for two rescued sea otters, two harbor seals, and an orphaned walrus calf, Alaska SeaLife Center’s animal care staff is experienced in rehabilitating marine animals. They literally work around the clock, regardless of the conditions. Whether late into the night, in freezing temperatures, throughout the day, or stretching over holiday weekends, the veterinarians and care staff have an important job: do everything they can to give their patients a second chance.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

For the recently rescued beluga calf who is already swimming on his own, that means keeping watch and recording his behavior 24-hours a day, hydrating him with an electrolyte solution every two hours, and just as regularly feeding him formula that replicates the nutrition he should be receiving from his mother’s milk. It also means calling in other professionals from around the continent to ensure the best possible chance that the little whale recovers. In just a few short days, experts from SeaWorld, Vancouver Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, and Georgia Aquarium flew to Alaska to assist.

The update provided by the Alaska SeaLife Center on their Facebook page on October 6th also mentioned that the beluga is strong enough now for veterinarians to begin to look for underlying health problems. Blood samples, various images, several cultures, and more diagnostic tests will be ordered, collected, and analyzed in the coming days and weeks in an attempt to understand why the calf was orphaned and stranded in the first place.

The Alaska SeaLife Center, a zoological facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, will continue to be important in this little one’s treatment and rehabilitation. But, even before he stranded, zoos were already playing a major role in his rescue and recovery.

Resident animals in zoos and aquariums help animal care specialists and veterinarians understand the behavior and physiology of their species. It is no coincidence that the individuals invited to Alaska to contribute to the care of the rescued beluga at the SeaLife Center are members of teams that have worked extensively with belugas within their care.

Beluga whales at SeaWorld, Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium, and Shedd Aquarium have been taught to voluntarily participate in healthcare sessions, also known as husbandry sessions, through positive reinforcement.

Animal care specialists from the facilities listed above have trained belugas to offer behaviors that allow veterinarians to collect blood samples, gastric samples, blow/breath cultures, ultrasound images, fecal samples, urine samples, and more. This data collected from several animals across multiple facilities allows researchers and veterinarians to create a ‘baseline’ which depicts the normal levels of white and red blood cell count, cholesterol, bacteria, stomach acids, hormones, etc. for healthy beluga whales.

When a rescued animal is brought in, like in the case of this Alaskan calf, veterinarians are only able to properly diagnose him because of the information previously collected and studied. After analyzing his blow cultures, the radiographs and sonogram images of his intestines, lungs, and bones, and running a full blood panel, they will compare and contrast his results with the baseline data collected over many years in order to accurately understand what ailment he has and how to treat him successfully.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

During his rehabilitation, he will continue to need the electrolyte solution and specialized formula as a milk substitute until he is old enough to eat fish on his own. Mind you, the perfect formula for a barely-month-old beluga calf is not found in a convenient powder on the shelf of a grocery store. Instead, the recipe had to be produced and shared among zoological facilities.

In order to create said recipe, veterinarians studied the milk of pregnant and nursing female belugas in zoos and aquariums, noting fat content, proteins, antibodies, and immunoglobulins.

When new calves are born, their animal care staff members tirelessly begin recording how often they breathe, how many times the calves nurse from their mothers each hour, and for how long they latch on during the periods of nursing. They take daily, or weekly, or monthly measurements as the calves grow, keeping track of their lengths, girths, and overall weights, giving the scientific community an inside look at accurate beluga growth rates. They note when their teeth erupt from their gums, when they begin to eat fish for the first time, and then when they consume it consistently and are considered fully weaned, allowing scientists to understand the behavioral patterns of young animals.

It is all of this information combined along with the dedication of the zoological professionals currently caring for him that gives this little beluga that stranded in the Cook Inlet in Alaska the best chance at surviving.

And this example is just one of thousands. The same can be said for black bears and bobcats orphaned by hunters, for opossums and foxes hit by cars, for sea turtles and manatees maimed by boat propellers, and eagles and hawks sickened by lead poisoning. Through the commitment of veterinarians, researchers, and animal care professionals both past and present, rescued animals receive a second chance at life.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

On his way toward his own second chance, this beluga calf still has many obstacles to overcome and so the public is reminded to remain cautiously hopeful as so much about his future is unclear.

But, this is certain: without the knowledge of the zoological professionals privileged to have worked with belugas elsewhere and the efforts of the Alaska SeaLife Center team members today, this little whale would already be gone.

Instead, he is in the hands of world-renowned rescuers. For this reason, he stands a chance. Good luck to the little whale and to all of those dedicated to his care. Best wishes for his future.

Cheers to All of the Zookeepers

Cheers to the zookeepers among you.

To the people who wake up early, long before the sun rises to begin preparing the animals’ diets in the always-clean commissary. To the ones that rinse lettuce and kale for the sulcata tortoises, roll raw meatballs for the Sumatran tigers, and load bales of hay and alfalfa into wheelbarrows and trucks for the Grevy’s Zebras, white rhinoceroses, and Thomson’s gazelle that all share the same sprawling exhibit. Cheers to you who cut up squash and sweet potatoes just the way that the picky eleven-year-old three-toed sloth prefers. To those who hand feed the Magellanic penguins individual capelin to make sure each of the fourteen birds gets their fill.

 

Here’s to the keepers who scuba dive among sandbar sharks, cownose stingrays, lookdowns, and hogfish, scrubbing algae from rocks, and wiping down acrylic windows. In just a couple hours, little guests will press their hands against them and gaze upon animals that they may have never seen before, and may never get the chance to see anywhere else.

To the keepers who wipe sweat from their brows and shove hair out of their faces as they rake, shovel, and hose every inch of the animals’ exhibits, thank you. To those of you who do so every day in the searing summer heat of Arizona, in the unforgiving winters of South Dakota, the torrential downpours of Florida, and everywhere else, thank you.

Thanks to all of the keepers who crawl into small spaces and climb up onto wooden towers to implement enrichment opportunities, changes in the animals’ environment meant to mentally and physically stimulate them. Cheers to the keepers who stuff fruit chunks in nooks and crannies for the ring-tailed lemurs to encourage natural foraging. To those keepers who give the giant panda cubs boxes to tumble around with, and watch the serval rub his face in and curl his lips at the scent of cumin, and turn on the firehose for a curious herd of Asian elephants.

 

Thank you to all of the zookeepers who spend time between cleaning and feeding, logging behavioral observations of the animals you have come to know so well. Who notice if the aging western lowland silverback is favoring his left shoulder more today than yesterday, or if the female pygmy hippopotamus slept in a different spot than she usually does, or if the recently-introduced colobus monkey is on the outs from the rest of the group. Thanks to all of the keepers who record all of the nuances, looking for both usual patterns as well as the anomalies, never skipping over a single detail.

Thank you to the keepers who train animals to offer conditioned husbandry behaviors. To those who teach the African lionesses to lay quietly for their routine blood draws, who reward the bonobos with juice for allowing a veterinarian to sonogram them, and administer eye drops to a harbor seal that has been taught to tilt its head to the left, then the right, so that restraint is never required for its routine care. These behaviors are beneficial and potentially life-saving, but are not learned overnight. So, cheers to the keepers who spend months, sometimes years, training these behaviors through positive reinforcement, each time rewarding the animal with something they seem to enjoy like a special treat, a rub behind the ears, or their favorite toy.

 

If you’re not a zookeeper, say thank you to a one today. These people, who studied in universities and colleges for years, fought and clawed for competitive seasonal internships and even more competitive permanent positions, are actually paid very little for a job that is very important.

They show up hours late to dates with their significant others because they’re standing by for the birth of a pacific white-sided dolphin calf and the mom just went into labor.

They call their children over the phone at bedtime instead of sitting next to them, reading through a picture book because they’ve been asked to stay late to care for a tawny frogmouth that suffered a seizure earlier.

They wake up in the middle of the night when the phone rings and rush out to rescue a half dozen manatees that somehow ended up stuck in a drain pipe.

They spend the Fourth of July, not at neighborhood barbeques, but teaching children in neon shirts at summer camps how to help save sea turtles even if they live a thousand miles from the ocean.

They miss Christmas with their families because they’re dressed up as whooping cranes, hoping the chicks who are fooled by the costumes will eventually be released into the wild, helping to save their species.

They embrace the enormous responsibility of trying to save the California condor, the Scimitar-horned oryx, and the black-footed ferret. They’re trying to save the world, one animal, one species, one visitor at a time.

They teach the small children perched atop fathers’ shoulders why it is important to drink from reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones. They reveal to the middle schoolers on field trips what the continued farming for palm oil may mean for the plight of Bornean orangutans. They ask the adults to make the switch to sustainable seafood to benefit entire ocean ecosystems.

They try to teach people who saw a chimpanzee mother and baby lounging in the grass, or fed a giraffe a leaf a lettuce from their own hands, or watched two polar bears trying to sink a floating barrel to care for the wild counterparts of these beloved ambassadors.

They get dirty. They go home sore. They wake up tired and do it all over again.

They rescue. They teach. They care. And, they hope at the end of every day, that you to care too.

So, to all of the zookeepers out there: an enormous thank you for all you do and happy National Zookeeper Week! Hope it was a great one.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo Strives to Ensure the Future of the Florida Manatee

In Need of Rescue

Most people who do not live in Florida, have never seen a Florida manatee. When, or if they do, many question what the robust creature might be: A walrus without tusks, maybe a manta ray, or a blimp (yes, really).

An average size of 10 feet long and roughly 1,500 pounds, these gentle marine mammals are known to be slow-moving herbivores that inhabit both salt and freshwater. Occasionally seen as far north as Massachusetts, and as far west as Texas, the majority of manatee sightings occur in the Sunshine State.

While these animals have no natural predators, roughly half of the deaths that occur in the adult population are human-related, primarily the result of watercraft collisions. Listed as an endangered species, several institutions work in an attempt to preserve this animal’s natural habitat, to educate people about the threats they face, and to rescue and rehabilitate injured or sick individuals.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is the only non-profit manatee hospital in the world specifically dedicated to the care of this species and is one of only three facilities accredited for the critical care and rehabilitation of injured or ill manatees or orphaned/abandoned calves.

 

A rescued manatee comes to the surface.

 

The Zoo’s Efforts

Caring for any animal is an around the clock job. Manatees are no different. Depending on the injury and the necessary medical treatment that an individual needs, the zoo’s staff can perform several procedures a day per animal. Treatment ranges from skin exfoliation, to surgery, to bandaging a wound, to taking x-rays and even bottle-feeding.

One of the manatees currently being cared for at the zoo was rescued at just a few weeks old. Orphaned for an unknown reason, the little male called Jobin only weighed about 55lbs upon arrival but began putting on weight rapidly thanks to the manatee milk formula. Manatees are mammals and nurse their young, but, in this case, with no mother nearby, the manatee caretakers stepped in as surrogates, providing a bottle of thick milk specially made for these instances.

Several aspects of the manatee exhibit and hospital are specially designed for similar rehabilitation scenarios. The manatee hospital is equipped with rising floor technology, meaning that the area in which some of the above procedures take place, the patient can be “dry docked”. These types of floors are sometimes referred to as “false bottoms” and rise completely to the surface of the water, supporting the animal’s weight and the team of professionals attempting to help it. This method is considered the safest for the animal and the least stress-producing overall.

When the procedure is finished, the floor is slowly lowered, easing the animal back into its aquatic world. There, the manatee can return to its typical activities of sleeping, swimming, and eating.

Big Expenses and New Initiatives

Eating is a big part of a manatee’s day and a big part of the zoo’s budget. Because a healthy manatee can consume roughly ten percent of its body weight in vegetation every day, that really adds up for the Lowry Park Zoo! In fact, the manatees are the most expensive animal in the park to feed, and that includes their close cousins, the elephants.

Depending on how many individuals are in their care, the zoo’s manatee population goes through fifteen to upwards of fifty cases of lettuce each day, adding up to several tons per week!

 

A rescued manatee munches on romaine lettuce.

A rescued manatee munches on romaine lettuce.

Along with the city of Tampa, the Lowry Park Zoo has begun a new pilot program in which they harvest vegetation from nearby reservoirs. Not only does this offset some of the costs that the zoo incurs, but it also helps the local environment because the two plant species harvested twice a week, hydrilla and hyacinth, are both invasive species in the state of Florida. This means that these plants are not native to the area, but rather introduced, with the unfortunate potential to cause economic and/or ecological harm.

Luckily, Florida manatees seem to find these two plants particularly appetizing, and, in the wild, an adult manatee can consume roughly one hundred to two hundred pounds of these hyacinth and hydrilla per day, keeping the growth of these weeds at bay. This is one of the reasons that manatees considered to be valuable within the ecosystem. Without the Florida manatee to consume these plants, they would overrun the waterways, obstructing the flow of water, hindering boat traffic, and potentially impeding animals’ movement through the environment.

Making a Difference

Although the Florida manatee is listed as endangered on the IUCN’s red list, there is still hope for these creatures. With the help of facilities like the Lowry Park Zoo, who rescues, rehabilitates, and returns to the wild manatees brought back to health, the population has increased over the last twenty years. In 1991, when the zoo’s manatee hospital opened its doors for the first time, less than 1,500 individuals were spotted along the east and west coasts of Florida. However, in the most recent aerial survey in January 2014, researchers counted almost five thousand individuals.

Some of the manatees in the care of the Lowry Park Zoo spend twelve to eighteen months being rehabilitated. Once the zoo staff and officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who coordinate the rescues and returns of manatees, deem the animal “medically clear”, the team can properly prepare the animal for return to its natural environment. This is the hope for little Jobin, who is rapidly becoming big Jobin! According to the zoo, he is on track to be returned to his native waters this coming winter.

Help at Home

Rescuing, rehabilitating, and eventually returning manatees to the wild costs the Lowry Park Zoo about one million dollars every year. Being that this project is a non-profit endeavor, the zoo relies heavily on the public’s support. One of the ways that you can help is by donating to the zoo and becoming a part of the “Manatee Match” initiative. For every two dollars donated, one dollar is matched by the Tampa residents Marylou and Jim Bailey as the zoo works to make improvements to the David A. Straz, Jr Manatee Hospital, the zoo’s signature conservation campaign.

 

You can donate online... Or at the zoo!

You can donate online… Or at the zoo!

Every little bit helps!

Every little bit helps!

 

Habits that you practice at home can make a difference for these animals too, especially if you live anywhere near this animal’s natural habitat. Make sure that if you are boating, you are abiding by posted signs and keeping an eye out for the grey back and snouts of manatees. And if you are fishing, properly dispose of or recycle monofilament line, and if you are lucky enough to see one of these animals, abide by the “Look, Don’t Touch” rule in order to avoid disturbing the animal.

You can even download this free app that allows you to log your sighting which helps the Save Manatee Club track manatees.

Another way to help? Educate yourself and your friends using the links at the bottom of the page. You can also visit the Lowry Park Zoo for more information and maybe even enjoy an up close encounter with one of these creatures. Plan in advance to be there during November for the zoo’s celebration of Manatee Awareness Month and become one of the one million guests that annually discover the next steps we can all take to help conserve the Florida Manatee population.

Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

Video of a Lowry Park manatee return

Lowry Park Zoo professionals talk about the rehabilitation process

Lowry Park’s Manatee Bio

Save the Manatee Club’s Website

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission