TAMPA — At least seven people filed 45 complaints with federal officials about a ZooTampa veterinarian currently suspended from treating manatees over allegations of malpractice, according to documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times on Friday.
The complaints about Ray Ball cover eight years, starting in 2010. One former zoo employee said she reported her concerns about Ball to the zoo's top officials in 2012, and they did nothing. She said that Ball's odd medical treatments affected more than just manatees.
"Dr. Ball changed several diets of animals within the collection with no consultation with a nutritionist," former 10-year zoo employee Tanya Ward wrote to federal officials. "These included giraffe, lemurs, orangutans and mandrills. We lost five giraffes due to what I believe was the diet change that Dr. Ball quickly implemented."
A second former zoo employee, Virginia Edmonds, provided the agency with a rundown of nine manatees that Ball treated that did not survive rehabilitation. The reasons ranged from using an unsterilized needle that caused an infection to failing to provide nutrition to an injured manatee that wasn't eating.
One of the complaints, dating from 2012, accuses Ball of lying about an ailing manatee named Maggie. The complaint says Ball told his staff that he had consulted with a state manatee biologist and another zoo official, and they agreed the only thing to do was to euthanize Maggie.
Afterward the people that Ball said he consulted told the staff they were not consulted at all, the complainant said. A subsequent exam showed that Maggie's condition was not fatal.
Two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists compiled the 45 complaints beginning in 2017, and then passed them along to the agency's permit reviewers last May. Five months passed before the reviewers notified zoo officials that these "credible reports" required an investigation, and that Ball must "cease all activities involving manatees." The zoo’s own permit for treating and exhibiting the marine mammals could be in jeopardy, the agency's letter said.
Zoo director Larry Killmar denied Friday that Ball was to blame for the deaths of the giraffes.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture looked at every case and found no issues of concern with any giraffe death," he said, adding that Ball "is widely recognized nationally as one of the foremost veterinary experts on giraffe in North America."
Killmar also said the zoo, formerly known as the Lowry Park Zoo, is continuing to work with the federal agency on getting renewed authorization to accept manatees, but the effort had been hampered by the government shutdown.
The zoo’s CEO, Joe Couceiro, announced last fall that Ball would be on paid administrative leave during an investigation of the allegations. A different veterinarian has been treating the zoo's other animals. But in an open letter published on the zoo's website on Feb. 15, Couceiro said, "advancements made by Dr. Ball and championed by ZooTampa have significantly improved giraffe nutrition and care across Florida and nationwide." Couceiro also dismissed the giraffe-related complaints about Ball’s practices, saying they came from “sources with no credibility or expertise on the subject matter.”
The federal agency's October letter focused on only four concerns about Ball, glossing over the wide range of complaints that had been made. The zoo arranged to have three manatee experts examine the medical records related to those four concerns. While the experts said he did not appear to have violated any care standards, they found that Ball deviated from standard medical care and that the reasons he cited "appear to reflect mere opinions … and are not backed by meaningful scientific data or studies."
Ball, who described himself as a "rogue veterinarian" in a self-published memoir, did not respond to a request for comment.
Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said he has now seen the 45 complaints and they trouble him.
"I remain a supporter of ZooTampa, but I have very serious concerns about the veterinary care for manatees there," he said of the complaints. "There's just so much that is there. You can't just say, 'Oh, there were four things and we fixed it.' "
The complaints are so voluminous that the documents released to the Times include a spreadsheet with a summary of all 45.
According to the documents, the people who complained about Ball included two other veterinarians and an aquarium director. They are not named in the documents, although one of the veterinarians was Martine de Wit, who oversees the state's Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory in St. Petersburg. De Wit had complained about Ball's decision to lop off a manatee's injured flipper and turn it loose without further treatment.
De Wit said Friday she had read through all the complaints, which she said were "all from experts in their field with many years of manatee experience and knowledge. I think the statements speak for themselves."
The federal agency’s questions about Ball last fall came at an awkward time for the zoo, which has been caring for injured and ill manatees since 1991. Its David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center was about to reopen after being shut down for a year for a taxpayer-funded $3 million upgrade. Meanwhile a 14-month-long Red Tide algae crisis meant that the need for manatee rehabilitation facilities was acute.
Gil McRae, who heads of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said this week that the state's main concern is trying to get that state-financed facility reopened.
"Our interest is in getting them online again because we helped them refurbish it," he said.
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] or . Follow @craigtimes.