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.
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!
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.
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.
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