Imagine you’re sailing in south Florida on a warm, sunny day. Something floating on the water’s surface catches your eye, so you steer closer to the object for a better look – Immediately you recognize the creature as a large, gray and severely wounded wild manatee. What will you do?
Since 1991, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has treated more than 240 manatees at their on-site manatee hospital – and more than 50% of these mammals were re-introduced into Florida waters. The David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Hospital is the only non-profit hospital in the world specifically dedicated to the treatment of sick, injured or orphaned wild manatees (an operation that costs the Lowry Park Zoo over $1 million dollars a year). In total, three facilities in the state of Florida offer medical treatment and a place for manatees to recover from their injuries.
The manatee can grow up to 13 feet in length and weigh as much as 1,300 pounds. Manatees have brownish-gray skin, powerful tails and two front flippers. They can swim and survive in either salt or freshwater. They breathe air, surfacing every three or four minutes. And these gentle water mammals – also called sea cows – live about 40 years on average in the wild.
Recently, I toured the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital to get a glimpse of what’s involved with caring for a manatee patient. Dr. David Murphy, the zoo’s veterinarian, shared that the most common issues they see at the facility are manatees suffering from cold stress or boating accidents. Additionally, they have treated manatees affected by red tide (a natural marine allergy that is toxic and potentially fatal to the manatee population).
Below, this manatee is being treated for cold stress (also called “Florida frost bite”), noticeable by the white spotted areas on his skin. Manatees are mammals that require warm waters for survival, and during the winter of 2009-2010, Florida’s water temperatures dropped to record lows. When in cold water, a manatee’s internal system shuts down. Through February 12th, 2010, more than 300 wild manatees died from cold stress – a loss of 6% of the entire state of Florida’s population. The David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital received frequent calls about sluggish, sick manatees that were suffering from cold stress. And in March, 2010, the zoo reached a record-high manatee patient load of 18 mammals at one time.
As part of the care process for a manatee with cold stress, the team creates a strategy for release. Generally, they’ll keep and care for the manatee until just before the end of a winter season. Then, they’ll drop it off into warm weather sites where wild manatees congregate in order to show them a reliable warm water resource. In most cases, the manatee patient will disperse with the rest of the local wild manatees and remember these locations for future seasons.
The gashes on the back of this manatee (below) reveal that it was a victim of a watercraft collision. The white areas of the wound are a good thing – it means she is actively healing in those areas. Because a manatee’s natural habitat is warm, shallow coastal waters and rivers (just 3-7 feet deep), unaware or irresponsible boaters can potentially hit a Florida manatee.
Manatees do not naturally float – these patients, below, have collapsed lungs.
Upon closer examination of a manatee’s skin, it’s easy to see why its closest living relative is the elephant – their gray, wrinkled skin is 1-2 inches thick and naturally dries and sheds layers.
During my visit at the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital, teams were assembled for final evaluations of two manatees being transferred to the Cincinnati Zoo. These manatees have an expected release date of Winter, 2011 and need to put on a few hundred more pounds. About 85% of the manatee patients that arrive at the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital that survive the first 48 hours are candidates to be considered for release back into the wild.
Wounds, spots and scars were examined…
Manatees were measured…
And, below, Dr. David Murphy cleansed a manatee’s skin and injected a microchip.
On average, it costs the Lowry Park Zoo about $300 a day to treat a manatee patient. And the whopping cost just to feed an adult manatee for an entire year? $30,000.
Learn all about Florida and West Indies manatees through this link, and plan a visit to the Manatee and Aquatic Center at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa to observe first-hand the care of injured, sick and orphaned Florida manatees.
There are lots of ways the public can help care for the wild manatee population. Always practice and encourage safe water sports – careful and aware boaters can help prevent manatee injuries – and decrease ground and surface water use. Learn more tips here.
And if you find an injured or dead manatee, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 24-hour hotline: 1-888-404-3922.