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Controversial 'rogue veterinarian' quits ZooTampa

TAMPA — Ray Ball, the self-proclaimed "rogue veterinarian" whose unorthodox treatment of injured and sick manatees led to his suspension from ZooTampa's federal license to care for them, has quit his job.

"After nearly nine years as senior veterinarian, Ray Ball, D.V.M., is leaving ZooTampa at Lowry Park to pursue academic opportunities that will allow him to combine his love of teaching and veterinary medicine," a statement released Friday by the zoo said.

The statement did not spell out what "academic opportunities" Ball is pursuing, nor did it give a date for his last day. Instead, the statement says, "Dr. Ball's work at the Zoo is winding down. He'll continue to transition to his new endeavors as he wraps up projects at the Zoo." The zoo is beginning a search for his replacement.

In response to questions from a reporter, zoo spokeswoman Andrea Alava said Ball was not forced out.

"This was his own personal decision to leave in order to pursue academic endeavors," she said. In response to a request to interview Ball, she said he is out of the country. Ball did not respond to an email sent to his ZooTampa address.

Ball's resignation caught manatee advocates and governmental officials alike off guard Friday. Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said Ball's resignation was a necessary step for the zoo to get past the controversy over him. A spokeswoman said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials could not comment about what this means for the zoo's future.

Ball was suspended from practicing on manatees last year after the federal wildlife agency said it had received "credible reports" that he was committing malpractice and may have killed some of his manatee patients.

At least seven people filed 45 complaints with federal officials about Ball's treatment. Some complaints dated back to 2010. They ranged from complaints that he changed the animals' diets to something unhealthy to lying about having permission to euthanize a sick animal. At least two complainants were ZooTampa employees.

One of the complaints came from the state's top manatee expert, a veterinarian named Martine De Wit who oversees the state's manatee necropsy lab as well as the manatee rescue teams. She provided reports and photos showing that on two occasions, Ball lopped off the injured flippers of wild manatees and then put them back in the water without any further care or rehabilitation — even though they had bones sticking out of the raw wound.

In an interview with the Times last November, DeWit said that ""from my observations other manatee vets have historically brought cases with similar conditions … into rehab for wound care, which is consistent with my own experience of treatment of such wounds."

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 a year ago. 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.

The zoo's CEO, Joe Couceiro, announced last fall that Ball would be on paid administrative leave during an investigation. A different veterinarian took charge of treating the manatees.

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."

In a self-published memoir called Omen of the Aardvark, as well as in promotional materials for the book, Ball repeatedly referred to himself as a "rogue veterinarian." The subtitle of the book, published last year, says: The Trials and Tribulations of a Rogue Zoo Veterinarian.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.