When Piccolina was first rescued from the Gulf of Mexico near Venice last year, she weighed less than 45 pounds — a far cry from what a healthy manatee calf should weigh.
Piccolina, which means “little one” in Italian, was the smallest female orphaned manatee calf ever rescued and treated at ZooTampa’s critical care center.
But over the last 15 months in rehabilitation, after being dealt a tough hand at the start of her life, Piccolina has grown considerably: She gained a healthy 375 pounds and is eight times heavier than when she was rescued.
In the early morning hours Saturday, Piccolina was one of three orphaned manatees to be transported to the Cincinnati Zoo after more than a year of recovery at ZooTampa at Lowry Park. She joined Calliope (400 pounds) and Soleil (475 pounds).
As critical care facilities across the state brace for what could be another surge of winter rescues, ZooTampa is making room for more animals by shipping the sea cows north. They will return to Florida waters once they’ve gained enough weight to not only thrive in the wild, but also keep a location tracking belt snug as they swim. At least 255 animals were rescued statewide since January 2021, state data show.
“It’s amazing what they can withstand,” said Tiffany Burns, ZooTampa’s director of marine life and animal programs. “We hope that this species continues to thrive, and this should help them get over this hopefully small hurdle.”
Burns was one of seven animal care staff that arrived at 5 a.m. Saturday to oversee the relocation, which included cranes, medical pools and some tight-knit team coordination. It’s not an unfamiliar routine for the group: ZooTampa’s critical care center is one of only two facilities nationwide that has federal approval to care for orphaned calves, according to the zoo. A transport truck carefully drives the sea cows to the airport, where they’re lifted slowly onto a plane.
In March 2021, three other manatees — SwimShady, Alby and Manhattan — were transported to Cincinnati for care. In September, the zoo announced they were ready to return to Florida waters, adding to the 19 manatees cared for at the Ohio zoo that have ultimately returned home.
In the midst of a particularly hard few years for Florida’s manatee population, as record numbers have died from starvation as a result of pollution-fueled seagrass loss, among other causes like boat strikes and Red Tide, the recent relocation of the three sea cows paints a portrait of resilience for the embattled species, according to Cynthia Stringfield, senior vice president of animal health, conservation, and education at ZooTampa.
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“Piccolina, Calliope and Soleil have amazing stories of survival and resiliency, and each are doing extremely well,” Stringfield wrote in a prepared statement. “We are confident that with continued care at the Cincinnati Zoo, their successful journey will continue as they move towards the eventual goal of returning to Florida waters.”
All three females were rescued as calves without a mother in 2021, according to ZooTampa spokesperson Sandra Morrison. State wildlife biologists rescued Calliope in April 2021 after she was found near Cayo Costa. Soleil was rescued in June of the same year near Bradenton, where she was stuck in a residential canal.
At least 727 manatees died between Jan. 1 and Oct. 28 of this year, according to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. That’s more than 100 deaths above the 5-year average for this point in the year, but it paces behind last year’s record-high mortality rate when 1,100 sea cows perished.
Almost half of all manatee deaths this year occurred in Brevard County’s stretch of the Indian River Lagoon, the epicenter of an ongoing die-off where years of human-caused pollution has led to seagrass loss and, as a result, more manatees succumbing to malnourishment and starvation. Almost 50 manatees have died in the waters around Pinellas and Hillsborough counties this year, with 14 dying from boat strikes, state data show.
With the three orphaned manatees now out of Florida and under care in Cincinnati, ZooTampa can take in more cold-stressed or starved animals in the winter.
“The critical care facilities in Florida are at capacity,” said Kim Scott, Cincinnati Zoo’s curator of mammals, in a prepared statement. “By providing homes for some of the manatees that are ready for the next phase in their rehabilitation journeys, we help to open up space for more rescued animals.”