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Manatees can now swim to doctor

At first glance, the huge concrete tank looks like some sort of complex water filtration system. But the observation windows on each wall give a hint that something much more interesting might be going on inside.

Or at least there will be _ as soon as the tank is operational, which is expected very soon.

Tucked away adjacent to the pathway leading between the Key deer display and the long river bridge at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is the latest improvement to assist the endangered manatee.

There the park staff has spent months watching progress on the new 60,000-gallon manatee isolation pond. Used in conjunction with the adjacent in-ground manatee pool, the complex will bring to an end the long truck rides to medical facilities for the park's nine manatees. Now veterinarians and technicians can provide nearly everything for the captive herd that other critical care facilities, such as those at Lowry Park and SeaWorld, have provided in the past.

Such trips are both stressful for the animals and expensive. When Rosie the manatee fell ill last year about this time, she was sent to Lowry Park. Her care bill was $5,000 per month, according to Homosassa park manager Art Yerian.

Now Homosassa Springs will rank right up there with those larger facilities in what can be done to help the endangered marine mammals, and that makes Yerian proud.

The facility will also provide an important link to other construction still planned at the park, primarily the new Wildlife Care Center. Construction of the Wildlife Care Center is slated to begin in the spring and is made possible by a $500,000 donation from the Felburn Foundation.

It will include a state-of-the-art home for wildlife care functions, doubling the space now available, and housing for college students conducting research and gathering hands-on experience with wildlife.

"It's going to be like having a veterinarian on staff 24/7," Yerian said.

The manatees live in a cordoned-off section of the Homosassa River that includes the river's main spring. The observation area suspended above the spring allows park visitors to see manatees above and below the water's surface. But sometimes park staffers need to isolate the animals, so they have taught them to swim up a narrow channel and into the in-ground pool, which was completed about three years ago.

That pool can be closed off and drained of water, allowing the park staff to treat the manatee on dry ground.

That operation replaced the old manatee round-up technique: Two dozen people in the water would maneuver a manatee into a sling so that it could be moved to another location by crane. Now just one or two people can isolate a manatee, Yerian said.

The width of a sidewalk away from the in-ground pool sits the huge new isolation pond, and it offers many more options for manatee treatment and research.

To treat a manatee in the new facility, Yerian said, the animal will be lured into the in-ground pool and fenced in. Then a crane will lift the creature and swing it into the new isolation pond.

While the in-ground pool is filled with water from the river, the isolation pond is a completely separate system. No river water goes in, and no discharge goes into the river. Instead, the water flushes into the Homosassa sewer system.

The closed system allows staffers to manipulate the water content. They can add salt and even medications to the water, and the temperature can be changed.

This flexibility can help with manatee treatment and research. The park's manatees have been quarantined since 1997 because they have papillomavirus, the only known virus found in manatees. Researchers don't know if it is dangerous or if its worst effect is lesions.

They do speculate about whether the virus is seen in the captive Homosassa herd because of their water, which is not very salty and colder than wild manatees prefer. . Wild manatees swim from freshwater to saltwater in a variety of temperatures, so scientists wonder if manipulating the manatees' environment might clear up the lesions.

Yerian said the Homosassa manatees will be part of that study once the pond is finished and researchers can begin their work.

The isolation pond has observation windows all around and a wheelchair-accessible ramp. The tank is divided into two rooms, one of which has a moveable floor. Staffers can raise the floor, in effect raising the manatee out of the water, so they can work with it on a dry surface.

Four manatees at a time can fit into the $800,000 pond.

The park does not plan to become a full-service critical care site like others in Florida, including SeaWorld and Lowry Park, but Yerian said that the facilities could provide a holding and treatment area for seriously injured or sick wild manatees on a temporary basis.

"You could bring it here, and it could stay here until we can move it to one of the critical care facilities," he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or

Shown is the new holding and quarantine and treatment tank at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The above-ground concrete structure features a powered lift that can pick up a manatee, which can weigh more than a ton; one park manatee, Rosie, weighs in at more than 3,000 pounds.