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Manatee manages calf's birth

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Hit by a boat, Iona suffered broken ribs. Recovering at Lowry Park Zoo, now she's trying to nurse a calf.

After watching an injured, pregnant manatee around-the-clock for days, staffers at Lowry Park Zoo saw what they'd been looking for at 7 a.m. Thursday.

Iona's water broke.

At 10:55 a.m., she delivered a healthy, 60-pound calf dubbed Lowry, the first to be born at the zoo's Manatee Aquatic Center. The calf immediately swam to the surface and took its first breath.

Staffers said it was remarkable how well Iona managed to give birth despite a punctured lung and broken ribs suffered after a boat hit her near Fort Myers in April. Staff veterinarian David Murphy likened it to a human mother giving birth shortly after being in a car wreck.

About 20 jubilant staffers witnessed the birth. Afterward, they broke out "It's a boy!" buttons and blue bubble gum cigars to celebrate.

But Murphy said Iona and Lowry still have a long way to go before they can be released into the wild.

"We look at it as a series of hurdles," he said. "The calf looks strong, healthy and vibrant. The next hurdle will be nursing."

Like other newborn mammals, Lowry will need to nurse often, maybe more than once an hour. Because of Iona's injuries, however, she has been wrapped in a custom-made flotation device that has hindered Lowry's access. The device has kept Iona on her side, instead of in the customary stomach-down position.

By 5 p.m. Thursday, Lowry still hadn't been able to nurse, and Iona was getting restive. She had not yet expelled the placenta, which usually is a prelude to nursing.

"She's a little resentful of having this contraption around her," Murphy said.

Staffers later removed the float, hoping she would get comfortable enough to nurse. Murphy said another 12 to 24 hours could go by before he'd really start worrying. If Iona still was unable to nurse Lowry, they would fall back on formula.

Mother and son had started bonding, he said. Right after Lowry was born, Iona nuzzled him and supported him on his first trip to the surface. This is not the first time the 10-year-old manatee has given birth, he said.

Manatees take 13 months to gestate and typically give birth to only one calf at a time. That makes it hard for the population to recover from losses. Their biggest threat is from boats; they have no natural predators, Murphy said.

The number of manatees in the wild in the United States and Caribbean is thought to be about 2,500. Experts disagree on whether they should be bred in captivity, and the U.S. Fish and Game Department has placed a moratorium on captive breeding programs.

In America, manatees are found only in Florida. Manatee calves typically spend their first 18 months with their mothers, learning how to feed and what routes to use for their winter migration.

Iona's 900-pound body is covered with propeller marks. Lowry, of course, has not a mark on him. He seemed oblivious to the commotion of people leaning over the tank for a view or the divers in the water with his mom. Instead, he calmly investigated the concrete walls and metal gates of the tank, nudging at them with his soft nose or probing with his flippers.

Murphy said Lowry feels like all babies _ soft, velvety and warm.

Neither animal will be available for viewing by the public until Iona has recovered from her injuries.