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Baby's death stalls bonding experiment

The mood is somber at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, whereexcited plans for the spring arrival of a new baby manatee were dashed when the premature baby was discovered dead Feb. 2.

Betsy Dearth, the state ranger who cares for the park's nine manatees, discovered the baby on the bottom of the park's spring after noticing Ariel, the mother, spending a suspicious amount of time away from the others.

Ariel delivered her calf about two months early. A normal gestation period is 13 months.

Charlotte Gable, secretary to the park manager, said the manatee calf immediately was taken to Sea World for a necropsy. Preliminary results show the calf was born dead, Gable said.

"Anytime we lose one of our babies, it's kind of sad for all of us," Gable said. "We try to take such good care of them."

Park officials were preparing for the birth with plans for a special holding pen for the mother and baby that would give the pair a better chance of bonding.

The manatee death is the second in about a year at the park, Ms. Dearth said. Last March, Ariel gave birth to a male calf named Ranger, but the baby died when the mother did not bond with it, Ms. Dearth said.

The baby manatee was Ariel's fourth calf and would have made her mother, Amanda, a grandmother again. The mother and daughter were rescued in 1973 after Amanda was seriously injured by a motorboat propeller.

Before coming to the Citrus County park, Ariel gave birth to two sons, Stormy and Sunrise. Stormy came to the park in 1986 with his mother and grandmother, but Sunrise was released to the wild. Amanda gave birth to a second calf, Star, in 1987. Star's debut was a park first.

Ariel's pregnancy was a surprise, Ms. Dearth said, since less than a year had passed since she gave birth to Ranger.

"When she got pregnant again, it was sort of unusual," Ms. Dearth said. "Manatees usually have a baby every three years."

Ms. Dearth was hopeful that last year's tragedy would not happen again since the state announced plans to create the holding pen for Ariel and her expected baby.

Gable said the park still will have the holding pen, but the project probably will be stalled for a while.

"There isn't the immediate need for it now, but it will still be done," Gable said.

The new pen is just one of several ways the state is working to make life better for park manatees. Since taking over operation of the wildlife refuge, once known as Nature World, the state has taken a special interest in the giant sea creatures.

"The state knows the No. 1 reason people come here is for the manatees," Ms. Dearth said. "The state has done many improvements since taking over, really quality work. It's fun to be a part of it."

Susan Cramer, park information specialist, said the manatee program is just one of many improvement projects the state has initiated or plans to work on this year. In its first year of ownership, the park spent about $150,000 on 50 projects, Ms. Cramer said.

As a result the park has more native Florida animals - snakes, a bobcat, a black bear and white-tail deer - that live in habitats similar to the wild. Ms. Cramer said the state this year plans to add a river otter exhibit and a western cougar, a close relative of the Florida panther.

The state also focused on upgrading the park, Ms. Cramer said, by

renovating some buildings and park bridges and putting in new fencing and bleachers for visitors when they attend outdoor educational lectures.

"The main change has been the greater emphasis on native Florida species and increased educational programs," Ms. Cramer said. "We feel we have a secure future. We know their philosophy about parks will help preserve what we have here."

The wildlife park, also a tourist attraction, is a new experiment for the state. Torrey Johnson, district manager for the Florida Park Service, said the Homosassa Springs park is unlike any other state facility.

"We're all part of the same family, but this is one unit we're looking at differently from the traditional state park," Johnson said.

Johnson said the state has been challenged to do a "first-class,

professional job" with the park and make money at the same time. "It can be done, if done carefully and not commercialized," he said.

The park has been a success so far, Johnson said, and made a profit in its first year. Johnson could not give exact dollar amounts, but he said reports of the first six months showed "a very favorable return."

The future looks even better. Johnson said the state is working on a management plan for the park that will identify long-range goals.

They also have hired consultants to advise them in spending fixed capital operating funds. Johnson said the state is looking at improving the wastewater treatment plant, refurbishing the underwater observatory and increasing parking space.

Johnson said the state would also like to form a citizen's support

organization, formed of local residents and community representatives.