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 Park, SeaWorld, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens , EPCOT's Living Seas, Cincinnati 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.
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.
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 www.ManateeRescue.org. 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.
We have changed the lives of countless animals. Read some of their stories here:
Hero photo courtesy of Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.