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from the desk of dan ashe

The Month of the Manatee

By Dan Ashe
min read

November is a stressful time of year for threatened Florida manatees. The gentle, slow-moving herbivores, also known as “sea cows,” have captured the hearts of Floridians, being named the official state mammal in 1975. Yet you might not know that sadly, humans are responsible for approximately half of manatee fatalities. A record number of Florida manatees – 119 - were killed by boat strikes last year. But humans are not their only threat. As winter approaches, temperatures drop, and manatees move to warmer waters, the likelihood of death or injury due to boat strikes increases as does their susceptibility to cold stress, disease, and effects of red tide.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is charged with protecting Florida Manatee, which is covered by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Manatees that are rescued are initially housed and cared for at one of three main rehabilitation facilities in Florida, with those requiring long-term rehabilitation later moving to other long-term care centers before release. Only a few select facilities in the country have been selected by USFWS to serve as manatee rehabilitation centers: including the ZooTampa at Lowry ParkSeaWorldJacksonville Zoo and Gardens , EPCOT's Living SeasCincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. All are involved in the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP), a cooperative of agencies, organizations, and oceanaria, to rescue, rehabilitate, and release manatees.

Two manatees swim  at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Carberry, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

These AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos serve as first responders for manatees in distress and have successfully rescued, rehabilitated, and released hundreds of manatees that otherwise may not have survived. The AZA community spent over $6 million to support manatee recovery in the last three years alone. We have long partnered with national and state government agencies to care for injured and ill Florida manatees and conducted crucial research about manatee biology, health, and behavior to understand the species better and inform management decisions. For example, ongoing studies at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium are using energy studies to calculate the caloric intake necessary for rehabilitation.

AZA is on the front lines when a manatee is reported in distress. At SeaWorld Orlando, the rescue team is on call 24/7, 365 days a year, to assist in rescuing manatees and other marine animals. In 2018, SeaWorld and its partners rescued 72 manatees alone. Upon rescue, manatees are transported to emergency critical care facilities like SeaWorld Orlando and ZooTampa at Lowry Park to receive round-the-clock, top-notch veterinary care. At ZooTampa at Lowry Park, the first non-profit critical care center for manatees, this advanced care includes an upgraded water filtration/ life support system allowing for treatment of the most severe cases.

Zoo Tampa has cared for over 400 manatees.

Rehabilitation is a long, intense process that can take months or in some cases, even years. Animal care experts at AZA-accredited facilities are committed to providing superior animal care in the least invasive way possible so not to jeopardize an individual’s return to the wild. Manatees that are not able to be released, such as Lou and Vail at Disney’s The Seas, continue to receive quality care and educate the public about the importance of the species.

Our contribution to care and conservation does not end when an animal is released. Each manatee that returns to the wild is fitted with a satellite transmitter around the base of its tail and is tracked by researchers with the MRP. Information about manatees currently being tracked is available at AZA-accredited facilities, like the Columbus Zoo, are also contributing financially to support in situ conservation efforts for all species of manatee.

Success by the Numbers.

  • This year alone, SeaWorld Orlando has rescued 23 manatees and returned 14 to the wild following successful rehabilitation. In total, SeaWorld has rehabilitated 716 manatees.
  • Since opening in 1991, ZooTampa at Lowry Park has treated over 430 manatees and released 252 directly back into the wild.
  • Since 1999, the Cincinnati Zoo has rehabilitated 19 manatees, and more than a dozen of those have been released back into the wild. (14)
  •  Since 1999, 29 manatees have been rehabilitated at Manatee Coast at Columbus Zoo. Seventeen animals have been released back into the wild.
  • During the annual survey conducted last month, a total of 6,620 manatees were counted. This is the third year in which the manatee population came in over 6,000, and it is the most counted since the surveys began back in 1991 when only 1,267 manatees were counted.

Cincinnati Zoo is Saving Manatees

We have changed the lives of countless animals. Read some of their stories here:

  • Miles (male) was rescued from the Sykes Creek on Merritt Island, Florida, in August 2016 by FWC, weighing only 43 pounds.  After receiving extended critical care at Sea World Orlando, he moved to Cincinnati Zoo and has gained enough weight to be eligible for release. 
  • After being rescued as orphans off the coast of Florida in early 2018, manatees Carmen and Heavy Falcon have completed their rehabilitation at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
  • Matthew (male) was rescued from New Smyrna in October 2016 by FWC, just after Hurricane Matthew. He weighed 56 pounds when rescued but has gained more than 700 pounds while at SeaWorld and the Cincinnati Zoo.
  • Bambam was rescued on January 18, 2015, as a young calf suffering from severe cold stress. Once stable he was flown to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden as part of the MRP where he spent two years gaining weight and preparing for his return. You can track BamBam in the wild here:

Hero photo courtesy of Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.


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