Lowry Park Zoo Hospital’s Role in the Manatees’ Struggle for Survival
Madeline Hall, Nita Henderly, and Marlene Kraatz
Lowry Park Zoo
In 1991, when we opened Lowry Park Zoo’s Manatee exhibit, zoo visitors had a unique opportunity to see live manatees up close in our two viewing pools. We were able to talk in general terms about the manatee, but visitors learned nothing about the important work our zoo was doing to rescue, treat, rehabilitate and release sick and injured manatees back into their natural habitats.
Beginning in 1999, zoo administration, the Education Department and the Docent Organization recognized the need to create an awareness of the manatees’ struggle for survival and our zoo’s work to help save the manatee. Three in-zoo programs were initiated with Docents taking an active part.
Part I: Manatee Talk at the Saunders Conservation Outdoor Theater
First, we began an informal program for visitors at 11:00 am in our Saunders Conservation Outdoor Theater. Attendance grew as more visitors had an opportunity to hear more about manatees and the program was added to the regular event schedule. Docents became presenters. I will briefly outline our program, using slides to show how we tell our story with posters, artifacts and other devices such as a crab trap float, an empty romaine lettuce crate and floating tracking device.
After an opening welcome and introduction of presenters, we first give general information on the four living and one extinct species of Sirenia: the Amazonian, West African and the West Indian manatee, the Dugong and Steller’s sea cow. We include the Steller’s to point out how quickly an animal can become extinct. Discovered in 1741 in the Bering Strait off Alaska, it was hunted to extinction just 27 years later.
What we have in Florida waters is the Florida manatee, a sub-species of the West Indian. Each January a census of the Florida manatee is conducted; this year 2,222 were counted, 1,131 on the East Coast and 1,091 on the West Coast. The 1999 census counted 2,400 manatees and in 1999 the recorded deaths were 268.
Although manatees have no natural enemies, they face many hazards in Florida waters. Boats are their #1 enemy with about 40% of deaths attributed to boat collisions and propeller impact. Other problems include fishing equipment (especially monofilament line), crab traps, artificial dams and weirs, destruction of sea grasses (their main food source), sunburn, frostbite, and a natural occurring danger–red tide, a toxic algae bloom often found in waters off the coast of Florida. Serious injuries can result and hospital treatment is required. Manatee ribs are very brittle, and when broken, shatter, often puncturing lungs. Flippers (hands) can get caught in crab traps or tangled in ropes and lines, and babies are sometimes separated from their mothers with starvation a threat.
Once a manatee in trouble is spotted (by the public, fishermen, boaters, wildlife officers), the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) is notified, and they decide if hospitalization is required and to which of three hospitals in Florida the manatee will be taken: our hospital on the West Coast (the only not-for-profit), Orlando Sea World mid-state, or Miami Seaquarium in south Florida. FWCC arranges transport to the selected location. Our veterinary staff evaluates the manatee, initiates treatment and monitors all aspects of the recovery process, determining when the manatee is ready to be returned to the wild. Average stay in our hospital is about two years, but one recent patient stayed over four years. The FWCC arranges for release, usually close to where the injured animal was found, and our staff assists.
Before release a microchip is implanted under the skin for identification purposes if a recapture occurs. The released manatee has a radio and transmitter tethered to the fluke (tail). Data from this tagging program along with aerial surveys help establish manatee protection zones where boaters are asked to exercise caution. (At this point in the presentation, we tell the audience as much as we know about the manatees in our exhibit and medical pools. In various stages of recovery, these manatees are all scheduled for release as early as possible.)
As adults, manatees weigh from 1,000 lbs. to as much as 3,000 lbs., and eat 10% to 15% of their body weight each day. At Lowry Park Zoo that amounts to 3 to 5 crates of romaine lettuce per day. Our estimated annual cost to feed one manatee is $30,000. Since they spend so much time using their teeth grinding up sea grasses their molars wear down, but as seen with their skull, new teeth (called “marching molars”) constantly move forward as replacements.
At last count 72 manatees have been processed by our zoo hospital, 58 of which were acute care. Successful releases to date are 30.
Part II: Behind the Scenes Tour of the Manatee Hospital Area
Come on down and get a tour of our manatee hospital area. This is a Behind the Scenes part of our zoo that is not open to the public. The first thing you see is our large yellow crane. This crane is very necessary in the lifting of manatees, as most of them weigh around 1,000 lbs. The crane is used to lift the manatees out of the vehicle that brings them to us and is also used to weigh them and lift them into and out of our medical pools. The manatees are put into a large sling for these procedures. We have three medical pools that can be connected or separated by using gates. Each pool holds 16,600 gallons of water. Two pools hold fresh water and one has salt water. The water can be lowered in order for our staff to give medical treatment as needed. They are also connected to the larger viewing pools by a channel.
The manatee’s food is served on top and in bottom feeders in the pools. Sixteen manatees can be comfortably accommodated. In front and to the side of the pools is the filtration system. This system filters the water every 45 minutes and keeps the temperature at 74 degrees at all times. It uses mainly a sand filtration system that has recently been updated. The large garage door is the entrance to the hospital ER and OR. In the front is a large cot that can be lowered, raised and moved. The manatee can be placed on this for X-rays, exams, surgery and treatment. It is also used for any of our other large animals. They are sedated before treatment.
Our veterinary staff consists of a veterinary surgeon, technician, intern and hospital keeper. Most of the equipment has been donated. Along with our sturdy cot with support bars, there are two X-ray machines, one small and one large, an X-ray table, two anesthesia machines, dental equipment, portable surgery lights, suction machine and an endoscopy machine. The vet staff wears gowns, surgical masks and gloves. Medical supplies are stocked and mostly donated. If a manatee needs surgery, the wound is never sutured, as their skin is 1½ to 2 inches thick. After surgery they are treated with antibiotics and other medications and the water in the medical pool is changed more often due to urine and defecation.
When a manatee is nearing release time, a pre-release exam is given and diet is switched to vegetation they will find in the wild. Our vet staff is told when and where to release the rehabilitated manatee. Our vet and some staff always accompany the manatee on the release. The average stay in our hospital pools is two years. Some are released sooner and some take longer. If a manatee has suffered a puncture to the lung after a boat collision and the lung fills with fluid, a flotation jacket is put on. This helps keep the manatee in an upright position. Sometimes very young manatees are brought in and do not know how to eat. Nursing bottles are tried first but most of the time they have to be tube fed. This takes a long time and has to be done at least three times a day.
Part III: Manatee Hospital Brochure
Over the years, several organizations have printed and distributed pamphlets and brochures about manatees and their struggle for survival. However, nowhere was there any printed material about Lowry Park Zoo’s participation in manatee rescue and rehabilitation. Our Manatee and Aquatic Center and Hospital, built in 1991, was the first to be designed and built specifically for manatees. As Docents, we wanted to get the word out about our facility and the care that is given to manatees with the ultimate goal of being released back into the wild once they have recovered. Being only one of three such facilities in the state of Florida and the only not-for-profit organization, we felt it was important to make our visitors aware of the work that is being done to help the manatee survive.
In the spring of 1999, as a Docent Organization, we decided to gather pertinent information and print a pamphlet which could be distributed within the zoo. We wanted people to know about our manatee hospital but more importantly, why it is needed. Docents were asked to submit articles and information and, with a very willing and dedicated volunteer, these facts were compiled, condensed and printed in a three-fold, black and white brochure. As funds become available, we are ready to print a glossy, color edition. Our Docent brochure was first introduced during “Manatee Awareness Month” in November of 1999. The brochure contains information about why the hospital is needed, some interesting facts about manatees and what we as individuals can do to help with their survival. At a very minimal cost of printing, we are able to produce this brochure with the hope of educating over 600,000 visitors each year.
The work Lowry Park Zoo undertakes in manatee rehabilitation is not covered under existing state or federal wildlife programs. Total yearly costs for the care and preservation of these “Gentle Giants” at our hospital is approximately $500,000, or 50% of the zoo’s animal budget. Lowry Park Zoo is a national leader, being 97% self-supporting.
A copy of our brochure is available. It is our hope that it will create an awareness of Florida’s beloved manatees and the importance of helping to ensure their survival in this 21st century.