Manatee experts question treatments by ZooTampa vet, say he based decisions on opinion and not science

Ray Ball, the ZooTampa veterinarian under investigation for medical malpractice that may have killed manatees, did not have federal permission to conduct experimental treatments of injured marine mammals, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. [ZooTampa]
Ray Ball, the ZooTampa veterinarian under investigation for medical malpractice that may have killed manatees, did not have federal permission to conduct experimental treatments of injured marine mammals, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. [ZooTampa]
Published Dec. 12, 2018

Experts ZooTampa asked to review the work of senior veterinarian Ray Ball found that he deviated from standard medical care for manatees and the reasons he cited "appear to reflect mere opinions … and are not backed by meaningful scientific data or studies," according to a document released Tuesday.

Although the zoo had said a day earlier that the experts had exonerated Ball, written excerpts of their review show they raised questions about the experimental drugs and techniques Ball used in treating some ill or injured manatees.

The experts found that Ball used his experimental techniques without getting clearance from federal wildlife officials and without consulting other manatee experts, the report noted.

The comments by the experts are included in a 16-page letter signed by zoo CEO Joseph Couceiro and sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday. The letter was responding to an Oct. 22 Wildlife Service letter that said the agency had received "credible reports" that Ball had committed medical malpractice that had killed at least two manatees under his care.

Couceiro and other zoo officials held a news conference Monday to announce that their experts' review had cleared Ball, although he still was not allowed to treat manatees. They had promised to make public on Tuesday the review by the independent manatee medical experts. Instead, they released Couceiro's letter, which contains excerpts from the review but not the entire report.

Zoo officials would not release a copy of the experts' full report Tuesday, despite repeated requests from the Times. One of the experts, Mike Walsh of the University of Florida, said they had all signed non-disclosure agreements and were not allowed to discuss their findings.

Zoo spokeswoman Kristy Chase-Tozier said that despite the earlier promise, there was no separate experts' report. Instead, she said, the experts' evaluations are part of longer report by an attorney that's exempt from disclosure to the public.

The Wildlife Service letter said it had received reports that Ball had twice accidentally killed manatees in his care while trying to drain liquid from their lungs. In addition, it said, he administered unapproved drug treatments, gave young manatees hay instead of their normal diet of aquatic vegetation and amputated the flippers of injured wild manatees and then turned them loose, rather than taking them to the zoo for further care.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Federal agency questions whether veterinarian committed manatee malpractice.

The three experts the zoo convened — Walsh, Lara Croft and Scott Gearhart — are all former SeaWorld employees with extensive experience in caring for manatees. The zoo gave them access to medical records for the manatees that Ball had worked on. They were sharply critical of his decisions to feed manatees hay and to give them treatments that other veterinarians have not normally used.

Couceiro's letter to the federal agency characterizes Ball's treatments as "less common or more of a progressive approach" compared to the way other veterinarians have handled manatee injuries and illnesses. The experts, though, were not as kind, calling Ball's handiwork in one case "novel therapy," saying another "seems to go against standards of care" and referring to another of Ball's decisions as "a departure from the previously accepted standards of care."

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PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Zoo vet amputations were opposed by state's top manatee care expert.

For instance, while some veterinarians have considered feeding captive manatees hay to avoid making them obese, there are concerns it can dehydrate them or cause digestive problems, they wrote. Yet Ball put at least a dozen manatees at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park on an all-hay diet.

One of them, an orphan named Greenlaw that had been injured by the park's popular hippo, Lucifer, had trouble recovering from its wounds as a result. Another, dubbed Lorelei, died with too much hay lodged in its colon, the experts wrote.

In this and other cases — the flipper amputations and the experimental drugs — Ball explained in medical records his rationale for going against common manatee treatment.

"In most cases," the experts wrote, "these statements appear to reflect mere opinions, and to our knowledge are not backed by meaningful scientific data or studies. We believe that such statements should be substantiated by citing credible sources."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Zoo and vet have no permit to do experimental treatments of manatees.

Wildlife Service spokeswoman Laury Parramore said that the zoo's permit to handle and treat manatees is not sufficient to cover any sort of experimental medical treatment. However, the zoo CEO's letter says, "It was always Dr. Ball's understanding that (the federal agency) permitted reasonable measures to be taken with respect to treatment of any manatee."

Contact Craig Pittman at or . Follow @craigtimes.