The level of passion and teamwork our Cast Members dedicate to all animals is inspiring, even for those only temporarily in our care like rescued manatees which are an iconic species around Florida. This dedication was fully displayed recently when we collaborated with the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership in the release of a 680-pound manatee named Plantaina to a freshwater spring on the St. Johns River, about 50 miles northeast of Walt Disney World Resort.
Plantaina is a young female manatee who was rescued as a baby near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when she was found abandoned at less than a week old. She was just 28 pounds at the time, making her the smallest manatee ever rescued. After a successful initial rehab, Plantaina was released back into the wild (February 2021). However, she was soon discovered to be losing weight which required another rescue and rehabilitation before coming to The Seas with Nemo & Friends at EPCOT. After increasing her weight to a healthy 680 pounds, she was able to be released back to her natural habitat.
Unfortunately, manatee rescues and rehabilitations are becoming a lot more common. A severe lack of food is causing concern as runoff and pollution continue to threaten their main food source. Each of these large herbivores can eat up to 300 pounds of seagrass a day, and many are beginning to starve from the lack of aquatic plants, further impacting this endangered species.
Collaborating with other rehabilitation facilities in Florida, our animal care experts at Disney provide ill and injured manatees with the stable, controlled environment they need to make a recovery and prepare for release. The manatees receive exceptional veterinary care including preventive health exams, a calorie-rich diet and around-the-clock monitoring to help them return to the wild when they are deemed fit. Once released, some manatees like Plantaina are assigned a satellite tracker that enables experts to continue to monitor the animal’s health, migration, and socialization with other manatees. These satellite trackers are designed to break away if they become entangled to prioritize the health of the manatee.
Plantaina is one of six manatees to complete rehabilitation at Disney over the last year. To date, we have had the opportunity to assist in the successful rehabilitation and release of 25 Florida manatees. When in our care, manatees may receive up to 150 heads of romaine lettuce each day depending on their individual needs, along with the occasional treat of apples, carrots and sweet potatoes, to help them return to their natural weight before they are able to be released.
In addition to the releases, the Disney Conservation Fund has provided grants to more than 15 nonprofit organizations to better understand manatee populations, biology and habitat use, aid in the restoration of seagrass, and provide care for manatees. It is very rewarding to see these funds helping animals right here in our own backyard.
I am so proud to work with a team of animal care experts who are passionately committed to the protection of manatees and their natural habitats. With each successful release, we continue to work towards a brighter, more sustainable future where people, plants, and animals all have a thriving place to call home.
Scott Terrell, DVM, DACVP, is the director of animal and science operations at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.