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Neurosurgery a first for injured manatee

Doctors employ a procedure used in humans to help a manatee ravaged by a boat propeller.

A team of doctors and veterinarians performed the first neurosurgery ever on an injured manatee, using the same rod-and-pin system developed to repair spinal cord injuries in people.

Nash, a 9-year-old male, was bright-eyed and alert Wednesday, three days after the 5{-hour procedure at the Miami Seaquarium. Despite an ugly propeller gash in its back that doctors said could take up to two years to heal, the 800-pound mammal is recuperating well at its new home.

"He's been following the females around and chasing carrots since the surgery," said Maya Dougherty, the Seaquarium's chief veterinarian. "We take that as a very positive sign."

Gregory Bossart, a Seaquarium veterinarian and associate professor at the University of Miami, said Nash was near death when found July 16, listless and bleeding, in a filthy drainage canal in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Nash, named for the good Samaritan who found it and called for help, had been hit by a large boat, and a propeller ripped 25 pounds of tissue from its backbone, exposing several vertebrae. By the time it was discovered, its kidneys were failing.

To help fix Nash's broken back and fuse the backbone, Bossart called in neurosurgeons James Guest and Eric Belanger. The doctors hope the manatee will gain strength in its back flipper, but expect it will remain partially paralyzed.

"It's almost a miracle to me, the way I found him," said businessman Glenn Nash, who had just parked his car when he spotted the manatee in about 3 feet of water. "I think it happened for a reason. He's alive to remind us that sooner or later, if we keep doing what we're doing, (manatees) won't be around."

Seaquarium vets have speculated that a large boat ran through Nash's mating herd.

The endangered species' numbers have dwindled to about 2,300. This may be one of the worst years yet for the manatee; by the end of June, 147 had been killed. In all of 1998, 243 died.