Documents: ZooTampa vet cut off injured manatees’ flippers, turned them loose

Published November 7 2018
Updated November 9 2018

ZooTampa has assembled a panel of anonymous veterinarians to pore over the allegations that their senior veterinarian, Ray Ball, killed at least two manatees with suspect medical practices and carried out other questionable treatments.

They will find that one of the complaints is documented in photos and reports from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and that the person who filed it is the state’s top manatee veterinarian.

The reports and photos show that on two occasions, Ball lopped off the injured flippers of wild manatees and then put them back in the water without any further care or rehabilitation — even though they had bones sticking out of the raw wound.

READ MORE:Vet for Tampa zoo accused of killing manatees through malpractice.

Ball did that over the objections of Martine de Wit, who oversees the state’s manatee necropsy lab as well as the manatee rescue teams. After he overruled her, she took her concerns to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency in charge of issuing permits to handle injured manatees.

Ball has now been suspended from treating manatees at ZooTampa (formerly known as the Lowry Park Zoo) while the federal agency investigates what it called "credible reports" that Ball was mistreating manatees.

The allegations range from administering experimental drugs to injured manatees to feeding young ones hay instead of the vegetation they need.

One of the "credible reports" concerns the amputations. An Oct. 22 letter from the federal agency to ZooTampa says Ball performed them "without treatment for infection and pain," and that he released the manatees "with exposed bones."

Reports of manatee captures from March 2015 and October 2017 give further details.

In the March 2015 case, state biologists set out from Fort DeSoto to rescue a female manatee tangled up in a crab trap rope and monofilament fishing line. With help from Tampa Bay Watch volunteers, they were able to toss a net over the manatee and capture it.

READ MORE: Two members of Congress call for full investigation of ZooTampa veterinarian.

As they headed back to the boat ramp, they noticed the tangled-up right flipper appeared to be "loose" in the net. Someone used an old sweatshirt to apply direct pressure to the wound.

Once they reached shore, the state biologists took the manatee off the boat and carried it over to a truck they used to transport injured and sick manatees to rehabilitation facilities. At that point, though, Ball climbed onto the truck with the injured manatee and "assessed and treated the injury."

The treatment: amputate the flipper. Then Ball told them to take it back to the water.

"A decision was made to release the manatee after a quick biomedical work-up," the report said. "The manatee was loaded into the capture boat and released" about 300 feet offshore.

De Wit was involved in the 2015 rescue. She said she opposed Ball releasing the manatee.

"The discussion involved disagreement about the release on site versus bringing it in for further wound care, and there was not exactly high-fiving on my part with the release," she said, responding to questions from the Times by email. "But … in our operations it is very clear who is in charge once the manatee is in hand, and this was Lowry Park Zoo’s call."

The second manatee to receive such treatment, in 2017, had a similar story. A crab trap’s nylon rope got wrapped around its flipper. With help from Clearwater Marine Aquarium staffers and volunteers, it was caught off Oldsmar and hauled back to a boat ramp, where Ball examined it.

"The right flipper was nearly severed," the report stated. Ball administered a cream that numbs the wound "and amputated the flipper … The wound was cleaned and the manatee was given antibiotics. The manatee was released from the boat ramp."

Photos show both manatees with protruding bones, which neither report mentions.

The two incidents did not sit well with de Wit, who brought up the matter with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as with a group of manatee veterinarians who advise the agency. The problem is that there are no set standards for such care.

"Every case is different, there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ procedure, and circumstances like wound appearance (amount of bleeding, healing tissue, bone exposure) but also health, welfare, and age of the manatee need to be considered," de Wit explained.

But, she said, "from my observations other manatee vets have historically brought cases with similar conditions … into rehab for wound care, which is consistent with my own experience of treatment of such wounds."

In a statement sent out Friday night, ZooTampa said it "refutes the credibility" of de Wit, saying she is not a licensed veterinarian in the state and is not licensed to treat manatees.

"The Zoo is disturbed that medical facts are being misrepresented in claims by individuals who lack the credentials, experience and training to provide life-saving veterinary treatment for sick and injured manatees," the ZooTampa statement said.

Zoo spokeswoman Kristy Chase-Tozer said Ball’s fieldwork on injured manatees was supported by a grant from a fund created by fines BP paid in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The grant called for him "to develop and implement field treat-and-release opportunities for entanglements, including amputations, and underweight young, independent animals."

That will be one aspect reviewed by the zoo’s committee of veterinarians over the next two weeks, she said. Then the New York attorney the zoo hired to oversee the committee’s work, James F. Gesualdi, will produce a report for the federal agency by its Dec. 7 deadline. After that, zoo officials said they would make it public.

However, she said, "the names of the review panel members will not be made public. It is the panel members’ credentials as veterinarians and their experience and expertise in wildlife medicine that is essential to the review."

Since 1991, the zoo has provided care for 400 sick or injured manatees. Ball took over as senior veterinarian in 2010.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.