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The consequence of record-breaking manatee deaths: orphans

A spike in manatee mortality this year is bringing more calves — and stress — to Florida critical care facilities.
Lisa Smith, animal care supervisor, feeds orphaned calves Soleil, left, and Calliope, right, at ZooTampa's David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center on Friday, July 30, 2021.
Lisa Smith, animal care supervisor, feeds orphaned calves Soleil, left, and Calliope, right, at ZooTampa's David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center on Friday, July 30, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 5
Updated Aug. 5

TAMPA — The manatee calves float at the surface of circular pools inside ZooTampa. Animal care supervisors feed them thick, yellow formula in Playtex bottles, topped with rubbery lids. They support the orphans’ sensitive snouts. Brush their bristle-like hairs.

One asks, “Are you done, Calliope?”

The baby manatee — energetic and erratic — backs away from the carrot-colored teat. Powdery particles of formula dissipate into the water. She asks again: “Or do you want a little more?”

Calliope swirls around, nears the bottle.

Finally she latches on. Like a calf does with its mother.

A record-breaking number of manatees — some parents to vulnerable young — have died since January 1, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The die-off has left baby sea cows, the gentlest of Florida’s gentle giants, to fend for themselves.

An unusually high number of calves have landed in four critical care facilities as a result. Because babies require expensive, round-the-clock care for years, rehabilitating calves like Calliope increases the burden on facilities.

Each day, the situation worsens.

At ZooTampa, “managing orphans just adds another layer of complexity,” director of conservation Tiffany Burns said. Its David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center was home to 19 recovering manatees and one permanent resident in July. In previous years, it handled around 15 animals at once.

Clearwater Aquarium is fast-tracking plans for its manatee rehabilitation center last month to help ZooTampa, SeaWorld, the Miami Seaquarium and Jacksonville Zoo heal the animals.

Related: Florida’s deadly manatee crisis could flare again this winter

The calf population in captivity more than doubled this year. Nineteen calves entered rehabilitation statewide between December 2020 and May 2021, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife. Between 2015 and 2020, only around eight orphans wound up in captivity annually.

Lisa Smith, animal care supervisor, feeds orphaned calf Calliope at ZooTampa's David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center on Friday, July 30, 2021.
Lisa Smith, animal care supervisor, feeds orphaned calf Calliope at ZooTampa's David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center on Friday, July 30, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

In just seven months, more than 880 manatees have died in Florida waters. The count has surpassed the previous highest annual statewide number of 830 from 2013.

Florida Fish and Wildlife attributes the soaring death rate to an alarming loss of seagrass on parts of the Atlantic coast, leaving manatees that congregate there with little food. That’s on top of the regular threats they face from boat collisions and cold stress.

With Red Tide worsening in the gulf coast, neurological problems from the blooms are adding yet another layer of danger.

In warm Florida waters, calves normally nuzzle up to mothers’ pectoral fins and grow a pound a day. With parents’ guidance, they learn the location of travel routes, food, rest areas and warm water refuges. They learn to live.

Critical care facilities attempt to mimic that care.

The babies remain in rehabilitation for two to three years from the day of rescue, far longer than the usual months-long recovery time for injured adults. Caretakers assume the responsibilities of momma manatees, nourishing the young and tracking their growth. Sometimes, animal care supervisors scold them when they squirm during weight checks or blood tests like children who cry in grocery stores or color on walls.

Burns said the zoo releases baby manatees once they reach adult age and 600 pounds. Only then can the animals survive in the wild.

“Orphans are an investment of time and resources, and it takes a village to provide for recovering manatees,” said Jon Peterson, the vice president of zoological and rescue operations at SeaWorld, now home to seven calves. (Peterson is also the chairman of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership.)

Healthier manatees are occasionally transported to secondary care facilities to lessen the number at critical centers, he said. No animals are ever turned away.

Related: Red Tide adds urgency to Clearwater Marine Aquarium manatee rehab center

In the cocoon of critical care centers, calves are doted on like infants.

Supervisors at ZooTampa perform regular weight checks and bottle-feed orphans every four hours — at 10, 2, and 6 — a.m. and p.m. Calves, though, are ultimately weaned off formula and fed a daytime plant diet.

“They eat and eat and eat,” said animal care supervisor Lisa Smith of the two calves and four juveniles at ZooTampa.

As they grow, manatees consume ten to fifteen percent of their body weight in food every 24 hours. In fact, much of supervisors’ time is spent throwing romaine lettuce to hungry manatees. To mimic the ocean floor, they also stuff carved PVC pipes with greens and drop them into the pools.

Manatee medical care mirrors that of humans, too.

Like nurses and doctors, caretakers cure a host of ailments: gastrointestinal issues, internal injuries and adverse effects from Red Tide. The toxic microorganism can leave both calves and adults susceptible to drowning. Other times, veterinarians monitor infections or execute ultrasounds.

“It’s not so different from the way we treat people or any other animal in the Florida exhibit,” Burns said. “Of course, manatees are a threatened species. But they are also incredibly, incredibly resilient.”

Dr. Melissa Nau (center) examines Soleil and her umbilical cord infection at the ZooTampa David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center.
Dr. Melissa Nau (center) examines Soleil and her umbilical cord infection at the ZooTampa David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center. [ DITI KOHLI | Times ]

One balmy Friday morning, Dr. Melissa Nau raised a ZooTampa orphan out of the water for routine blood work. Soleil lives with an umbilical cord infection she contracted before her June rescue from Palma Sola Bay near Bradenton.

Two caretakers used alcohol wipes and betadine to sanitize an area near her flippers. A thin needle pierced her skin. Her eyes squinted against the sun. As blood filled the syringe, Soleil shifted gently. “Good girl,” Nau said.

She assured the team Soleil’s condition is improving.

“Everything is moving in the right direction,” Nau said. “I don’t want to jinx it though. You hear that, Soleil?”

This round-the-clock care inches the orphans toward maturity.

In due time, ZooTampa rescue workers hope to load Soleil and Calliope into a transport truck with the help of a half dozen employees, a stretcher and a crane. The vehicle will take them to a warm water site, where groups of manatee find refuge during cold weather.

From other adults, the pair will learn the ways of the wild — and receive a second chance at life.

“A lot of them, if they weren’t rescued, probably wouldn’t have that chance,” said Jaime Vaccaro, a ZooTampa animal care supervisor of 14 years. “That is why we do what we do.”

The realities of adult life may mean Soleil and Calliope abandon the sisterly bond they formed so quickly at ZooTampa. One is more lively; the other, calm and quiet. They swim, play and eat together. Side by side, they sink to the pool floor for naps.

But once released in open water, they could lead separate lives. And for conservationists, that is the goal: for the orphans to be free.

Peterson at SeaWorld said 98 percent of calves thrive after rehabilitation.

Soleil and Calliope may even eventually contribute to growing the shrinking manatee population. It stands at just 6,500 today, according to estimates from Peterson.

The pair could birth calves. Then see their calves have calves.

“When the orphans leave the zoo, we never want to see them again,” added Vaccaro. “We don’t want them hurt or injured. We don’t want them back in the facility. We want them to live the life they would have had with a traditional childhood.”