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Manatees return to ZooTampa, but 'rogue vet' still can't treat them

A manatee mother and calf in an enclosure at ZooTampa on Thursday. The mother was injured by a boat strike and animal rescue workers kept the uninjured calf with her. ZooTampa at Lowry Park has resumed its care of Florida manatees in need of rescue and rehabilitation at its David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center. There are currently four manatees in its care. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Mar. 22

TAMPA — For the first time in 18 months, manatees swooped and dawdled and nibbled their way around ZooTampa's manatee care tanks Thursday. Four of them were transferred to the zoo from other facilities for care, although the zoo's senior veterinarian is still forbidden to touch any of them because he's been accused of manatee malpractice.

The patients are Cayo, a male manatee found near Cayo Costa four years ago; Roomba, another male, also recovering from a boat-related injury suffered in Citrus County's Crystal River; and Heinz, a mother manatee also injured by a boat, and her male calf, Sriracha, who was not injured but was not yet able to live independent of its mother.

The four are the first manatees to use the tanks after the zoo's manatee care facility underwent a $3 million taxpayer-funded upgrade to its life support system starting in 2017.

"This means we can increase our capacity," zoo director Larry Killmar said just before the care center was reopened to the public. The tanks can hold two dozen manatees if needed, "but we'd like for it to stay in the range of 12 to 15."

The David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center, which has been caring for manatees since 1991, was shut down for 18 months during the renovation work. It was ready to reopen and take in manatees last fall, Killmar said, when federal officials suspended the zoo's access to injured and ill manatees as a result of complaints about Ray Ball, the senior veterinarian.

At least seven people filed 45 complaints with federal officials claiming Ball mistreated injured manatees, including cutting off injured flippers and releasing the animals with no follow-up medical care. The complaints also accused him of euthanizing a sick manatee that was not fatally ill and lying about whether he had permission to do so, and changing the diet for the zoo's giraffes without consulting experts, leading to the deaths of five of them.

One complaint said the zoo's top officials were informed about Ball's poor treatment of the manatees and did nothing.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Complaints against zoo vet total 45, including one about giraffe deaths.

Zoo officials have strongly objected to the allegation about the giraffe deaths, which occurred in 2012, contending that federal officials cleared the zoo of responsibility. Killmar said the zoo looked into some of the complaints, including the one about zoo officials knowing that Ball was providing questionable care, and did not find a reason to remove him from working on the manatees.

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 the "credible reports" required an investigation, and said 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.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Manatee experts question care by zoo's vet.

Ball remains on staff and is overseeing medical care for other animals, Killmar said.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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