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Generating efforts to save the grace of manatees

Three times in one week, volunteers dropped what they were doing, donned wet suits and rushed out to the Hall River in search of a sick manatee. On May 24, after an exhausting struggle with the nearly 2,000-pound animal, they finally trapped it. Then a scramble began to find a truck to take the manatee to SeaWorld in Orlando for care.

Ryder Truck wanted a $150 deposit, which the volunteers didn't have. Several harried phone calls later, they got a truck from Inverness. All their efforts were for naught: By the time the truck arrived, the manatee had died.

Increasing public focus on the plight of the endangered animal has spawned a number of manatee rescue efforts. More often than not, those efforts have ended in failure.

By the time rescuers get to manatees, the animals often are too sick to survive. Also, knowledge of how to treat manatees is limited.

But to Crystal River veterinarian Mark Lowe, a member of the rescue team, the population of manatees is so low that every one counts.

"You don't save them all, but you do the best you can," he said.

Since starting 18 years ago, SeaWorld has saved about 40 percent of the manatees it has treated, said Jack Pearson, the aquarium's curator of mammals. Three of the four manatees hauled from Citrus County waters since January 1990 by a fledgling rescue team have died.

"You're up against a lot to get one captured, treat it and have it rehabilitate successfully," said Mark Sweat, a marine mammals biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Those involved in manatee rescues give different reasons for continuing their work against such odds.

Generally, rescue team member Frank Drauszewski doesn't believe in animal rescues. The assistant manager of the area U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges thinks that nature should be allowed to run its course.

He makes an exception for an endangered species like the manatee, because the rescue efforts generate publicity about the animals' plight and the need to help them, he said.

But "you're not going to save a species by saving one animal," he said.

Scott Wright gives the scientist's line. Manatee rescues, even if unsuccessful, provide rare opportunities to understand the animal and determine what kind of treatment works, said DNR's statewide manatee rescue coordinator.

The rescue team and other manatee lovers think the team could do a better job with some better equipment and more experience.

On some early attempts, volunteers showed up to rescue a manatee and then realized they didn't have all the equipment.

"It kind of got to be a comedy of errors," said Helen Spivey, a Crystal River manatee advocate.

Jesse White, a Dunnellon veterinarian who worked with manatees for years at the Miami Seaquarium, said he wonders why he hasn't been called recently for manatee rescues.

Drauszewski said it was an oversight and that White would be called in the future.

"They haven't been in existence very long so they can't have the experience," White said.

"They're trying hard and they're a very dedicated bunch of people but they've only been doing it for two years."

In addition to inexperience, the team also lacks the ideal equipment.

Spivey is spearheading efforts to get the rescue team a specially equipped boat for capturing manatees and a truck to carry them to treatment centers.

The boat would be equipped with a hoisting winch and could be sunk halfway under water. Those features would make it easier to get the netted manatee into the boat.

Also, the boat would have a 12-foot high deck to search for the manatee. Often, volunteers get a report of a manatee sighting but can't find the animal when they get there.

"It is like searching for a needle in a haystack," said Cameron Shaw, manager of the area U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges.

He advised people who see ill or injured manatees to keep them in sight and have someone else notify authorities to send for the rescue team.

The one successful rescue since January 1990 was a baby manatee hit by a fishing boat in Chassahowitzka.

The fishermen picked up the 330-pound manatee and brought it in themselves.

Generally, wildlife officials don't want the public attempting rescues on their own. "They are gentle giants until you put a net around them," Wright said.

Spivey also wants to get what she calls a "manbulance," an extended van or truck with a lifting mechanism to get the manatee inside once it has been brought to shore.

Then rescuers wouldn't be at the mercy of rental truck companies and the limits of their muscle strength to pick up the manatee.

Before the latest manatee death, the team tried several methods before getting the animal _ estimated at 1,800 to 1,900 pounds _ halfway up a boat ramp.

Although better equipment would make the rescuers' job easier, it might not help the animals much.

A difference of two or three hours isn't all that crucial to their lives, Wright said.

For the manatee that died May 24, a difference of several days wouldn't have changed the outcome, Lowe said.

The manatee was so ill that it would have died even if it had been rescued the first day it had been sighted, he said.

"We find ourselves sometimes in this (emergency medical transport) ambulance mode, which I think is more for the press, the politicians and the public than the animals," Wright said.