ZooTampa cleared to treat manatees, but controversial vet still banned from touching them

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has cleared the Tampa zoo to again treat manatees while it continues to review complaints against self-described "rogue veterinarian" Ray Ball
Published March 11
Updated March 12

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to let ZooTampa begin treating injured and ill manatees again, so long as controversial senior veterinarian Ray Ball doesn't touch them.

The decision, announced in a letter dated March 7, says that while the agency reviews the zoo's response to the complaints about Ball, "ZooTampa may continue to receive manatees. … During this review process, Dr. Ball may not have any involvement with the manatees."

Instead of Ball, the manatees will be treated by the zoo's other staff veterinarian, Lauren Smith, with backup by vets from SeaWorld and the Jacksonville Zoo.

The wildlife agency, which issues permits for handling manatees, subsequently sent an e-mail to zoo officials saying it can treat four manatees in need of care that had been rescued off the state's gulf coast recently.

In a statement zoo officials sent to the Times late Monday, they reiterated that Ball is not involved in manatee care and said, "The Zoo is ready to provide life-saving care to Florida manatees once again."

Patrick Rose of the Save the Manatee Club said he still has concerns about what Ball did, and called on zoo officials to develop "specific updated Standards of Care procedures that take into account the circumstances of the past documented substandard levels of care."

The Tampa zoo, previously known as the Lowry Park Zoo, has been caring for injured and ill manatees since 1991. Its David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center was about to reopen last fall after being shut down for a year for a $3 million taxpayer-funded upgrade when the Ball investigation came to light.

PRIOR COVERAGE: ZooTampa vet accused of manatee medical malpractice.

In an Oct. 22 letter to zoo officials, the federal agency wrote that Ball must "cease all activities involving manatees" while the agency investigated a long list of complaints accusing him of malpractice in treating manatees. That included a review of whether he's to blame for two manatee deaths. The zoo’s own permit for treating and exhibiting the mammals may be in jeopardy, the letter sent last fall said.

Ball, a 1992 graduate of the University of Florida’s School of Veterinary Medicine, has been working at ZooTampa since 2010. He's cared for everything from panthers to giraffes. ZooTampa is one of only five places in the state with a permit to take in injured or ill manatees for rehabilitation, which means Ball frequently joined rescue crews trying to save manatees that had been hit by boats or tangled in fishing lines.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Complaints about ZooTampa vet total 45, including one blaming him for giraffe deaths.

But over the years complaints piled up over how Ball, who described himself as a "rogue veterinarian" in a self-published memoir, treated the manatees. One former zoo employee said she reported her concerns about Ball to the zoo's top officials in 2012, and they did nothing. Zoo officials have denied it.

Many of the complaints focused on how he amputated flippers with no follow-up care or anesthetic, how he tried what were considered experimental treatments or diets without any research or permission and whether poor care decisions left manatees in worse shape or dead. One 2012 complaint also blamed his decision to make a diet change for the deaths of five giraffes, an allegation that zoo officials have strongly denied.

One of the complaints, also 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 that Maggie should be euthanized.

Afterward the people that Ball said he consulted told the staff they were not consulted at all, the complaint said. A subsequent exam showed that Maggie's condition was not fatal.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Manatee experts say ZooTampa vet based treatment decisions on opinion, not science.

In response to the letter from the federal agency last fall — which focused on only four general areas of concern, rather than listing all 45 complaints — the zoo convened a panel of experts to review the care that Ball provided. 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."

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] or . Follow @craigtimes.

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