Manatee Rescue, Rehabilitation, Release and Research
Craig Pugh – Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, USA
Since 1991, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo has treated more than 350 endangered Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) at its Manatee Hospital; nearly 200 have been rehabilitated and reintroduced to the wild to date. The Zoo's primary manatee conservation goals are to ensure their rescue, rehabilitation and release, and to conduct and support scientific research to support manatee conservation. The Zoo educates almost one million visitors annually about the Florida manatee, the importance of marine habitat conservation and the need for personal action to ensure the survival of this sentinel species for ecosystem and human health.
The State of Florida's Manatee Rehabilitation Program began in the early 1990s when an alarming number of reports of sick, injured and orphaned animals led to the designation of the Zoo, SeaWorld Orlando and Miami Seaquarium by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as manatee critical care facilities. The Zoo's Manatee Hospital was the first facility designed specifically for manatee treatment. It features three 16,000 gallon medical pools, two underwater viewing pools (75,000 gallons and 125,000 gallons) and an observation area from which Zoo visitors can watch manatee care procedures. The Hospital treats animals primarily from Florida's West Coast, but receives patients from the entire state. The Zoo annually treats about half of all manatees rescued in Florida.
The Florida manatee is threatened by human activity (boat strikes and crab trap/fishing line entanglement), environmental events (cold stress) and degradation of natural habitat (nutrient pollution leading to algae blooms and resulting toxicity). Sick, injured or orphaned manatees are most often identified by the public who notify the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which coordinates rescuers, transporters and verifiers from multiple organisations to deliver the animals to one of the critical care facilities. They provide 24/7 emergency and rehabilitative treatment, developing over the years some of the most successful treatment methods. Recovering animals remain with the Zoo or a secondary facility for up to a year and a half until they can be released in areas where other manatees will guide them to warm water. Animals ready for release are examined by FWC and micro-chipped. When feasible because of the high cost, manatees targeted for ongoing monitoring are trained to wear a radio collar at the base of their tail. Animals that do not survive are recovered by FWC, which performs a necropsy.
The Zoo's annual cost for manatee care is approximately US$ 1 million – about one quarter of its entire animal care budget for more than 1,000 animals. Reimbursement by the State of Florida Oceanaria Reimbursement Assistance Program averages less than 50% of actual cost. The Zoo funds the balance from its operating budget and fundraising. Since 1991, the Zoo has spent an estimated US$ 10.5 million on the manatee programme. The financial impact on the Zoo is increasing with the growing number and scale of so-called unusual mortality events, such as 2013's red tide event when the Zoo received all 16 toxicity rescues because of its treatment success.
The Zoo's manatee programme is one of its areas of conservation excellence. Its veterinary and manatee care staff, with over 80 years of combined experience, are recognised worldwide. The Zoo's senior veterinarian, Dr Ray Ball, is currently consulting with the French government on a United Nations Environmental Programme operation to reintroduce manatees to the National Park of Guadeloupe. In 2012, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) awarded the Zoo its North American Conservation Award for leadership in manatee conservation.