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Releasing two captive manatees stirs controversy in Homossasa Springs

Electra will soon be released along with manatee Amanda from the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to release all healthy captive manatees, but some say the animals have been captive too long.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Electra will soon be released along with manatee Amanda from the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to release all healthy captive manatees, but some say the animals have been captive too long.

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS

When Amanda is hungry, she rolls onto her back and makes a coy little flipper gesture toward her mouth.

She picked up the trick at the Miami Seaquarium, and it has helped her get her fill of goodies like carrots and sweet potatoes for more than three decades, most of which have been spent at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

Soon, however, Amanda is going to have to fend for herself.

She and another manatee at the park in Citrus County, a nine-year captive named Electra, are set to be outfitted with tracking equipment and set free at Blue Spring on the St. Johns River in February.

The planned release has ignited a firestorm between federal officials and manatee advocates, some of whom find themselves in a somewhat awkward position.

Long-standing federal policy is to rehabilitate and release endangered species, which is something Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said the group strongly supports.

But should that policy make exceptions for manatees like Amanda, who has spent virtually her entire life in captivity and may not be up to the rigors of living in the wild?

"You look at her age and you ask, is it the right thing to do to release that individual animal?" said Rose. "This is a very, very tough call."

Manatees are thought to live up to 60 years.

"I think there is a high risk of them being hit by a boat or being harassed because they're so used to people," said Joyce Paisner, a volunteer at the Homosassa Springs park who helps with the manatee education program. "Are they going to know to stay away from boats?"

Rescued Christmas Day 1973 after being severely injured by a boat propeller, Amanda was brought to Homosassa Springs in 1986 as part of a captive breeding program. But that program ended. Federal officials have released a few rehabilitated manatees a year, focusing on those with less time in captivity, and didn't get to Amanda until now.

For years, Amanda has been one of the manatees that Save the Manatee Club adopts out to raise funds. So far, more than 900 people have adopted her.

Paisner recently met one of them, an elderly woman in a wheelchair who visited the park just to see her adoptee. When the woman learned of the plans for Amanda's release, "she had to be consoled," Paisner said.

At the urging of constituents, state Sen. Mike Fasano has tried to get the release canceled but without success. The Citrus County Commission last month urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reverse its decision after commissioners were inundated with phone calls and ­e-mails.

"The park is a part of the manatee rescue and rehabilitation program," said Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the federal agency. "The manatees are, at some point, scheduled for release, normally sooner rather than later. But then came the papilloma virus."

In 1998, the park was quarantined to contain the virus, the first one ever identified in manatees. In 2008, officials lifted the quarantine and determined that there were 16 animals statewide that should be released, many long-time captives or captive born.

Homosassa Springs has six manatees, counting the two currently set for release. Two of the others are Amanda's daughters.

Of the seven so-called "naive manatees" — those in captivity long term or captive-born — released back into the wild, three have been successes, according to Underwood.

Rita, reportedly the largest manatee ever at Sea World, was not one of them.

After 26 years in captivity, the 3,000-pound manatee was released in late February. She was found dead in July, reportedly of natural causes.

Like Rita, both Amanda and Electra are overweight. Amanda weighed 2,710 pounds and Electra 1,681 pounds in August when they were removed from the springs and put in holding tanks to get them ready for release.

The average weight of a manatee is 800 to 1,200 pounds. Rose said he worries whether Amanda and Electra will handle life in the wild with the extra weight.

Getting manatees out in the wild again is also important because the space in rehabilitation facilities is limited, Underwood explained. At any time, there are about 60 manatees in captivity at a limited number of sites, including Homosassa Springs, three other Florida facilities and zoos in California and Ohio.

Releasing animals ready to go frees up "bed space," he said.

Underwood said his agency is considering a number of issues in advance of the February release, but he reiterated that federal law is clear: Animals are not to be kept on display if they can be released, even if they are good ambassadors of the plight of their species.

"As a wildlife agency, we have to err on the side of the animals' best interest, which is to be a wild animal rather than a captive," he said. "While there is an educational value in having them in captivity, it doesn't trump putting wild animals back in the wild."

Rose of the manatee advocate group agrees, for the most part.

"Our goal would be to support the release because it was in the best interest of manatees in general and in the best interest of Amanda and Electra," he said. "But we're not there yet."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Releasing two captive manatees stirs controversy in Homossasa Springs 11/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 9:33pm]
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