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Helpful manatee returns to the sea

The manatee named A. Englewood went home Tuesday after two months of helping the people who saved her learn how to save others of her endangered species.

The 1,300-pound female, aided by members of the Englewood High School football team, slipped into the waters of Lemon Bay at Indian Mound State Park near the Sarasota-Charlotte county line and swam away about 12:30 p.m.

She was found floating on her side in the same area three months ago and rescued by a state marine biologist on his way to work.

Rescuers named her after the month she was found _ April _ and the place _ Englewood, a small community south of Sarasota.

Veterinarians at Lowry Park Zoo nursed her back to health and in the process helped discover the cause of a mystery illness that killed 158 other manatees earlier this year in Southwest Florida: a toxic microorganism known as Red Tide.

Since April, the zoo's manatee hospital has treated five sick animals from the area between Englewood and Marco Island, where the die-off occurred. All the animals exhibited the same symptoms: paralysis, muscle spasms and an inability to breathe on their own, said David Murphy, the zoo's chief veterinarian. All quickly recovered once they were removed from water containing the toxic microorganisms.

"I've got a clear picture of what Red Tide looks like in manatees now," Murphy said.

A. Englewood was the last of the five to be released. Sick, weak and pregnant when she arrived at the zoo April 22, she needed two life preservers to keep from drowning in her shallow pool. She recovered quickly and gave birth to a stillborn calf May 20.

Last month, zoo staff used her in an unsuccessful effort to nurse a sick, orphaned calf. The calf died July 13, but A. Englewood's keepers realized another way she could help: As a mother.

"She was very attentive to the calf and very interested in it," Murphy said.

A. Englewood is an important manatee because she is an experienced mother who probably has raised many calves and is estimated to be between 10 and 20 years old _ still young enough to bear a few more, Murphy said. She will be fitted with an electronic tracking device allowing researchers to follow her wanderings.

"That type of animal is very important to the population of manatees on the west coast," he said.