Twenty-six years after he first started caring for large animals, ZooTampa senior veterinarian Ray Ball wrote a book about his career. It featured stories about the time he pinched a rhino’s testicles to get it to move, and how he and another vet went through a Hardee’s drive-through with a sedated alligator in the back of their truck.
He self-published the book, Omen of the Aardvark, seven months before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent his employers a letter announcing it had received “credible reports” he had committed malpractice on injured and ailing manatees, killing two of them. He is currently on paid leave while a panel of experts assembled by the zoo reviews his work.
While zoo officials have defended Ball, his autobiography may undercut their case. In the book and its promotional materials, he repeatedly refers to himself as a “rogue veterinarian.” The books' subtitle even says: The Trials and Tribulations of a Rogue Zoo Veterinarian.
“Being a veterinarian is often considered one of the most noble of all the professions,” the back cover says. “But veterinarians are simple humans, even the rogue ones. Especially the rogue ones. But are we born rogues or made that way? These short stories outline the development of one such rogue.”
After noting a few of his accomplishments, the back cover copy concludes with this: “Currently he is Senior Veterinarian at ZooTampa … and continues to be a rogue.”
Ball does not explain exactly what that means, but at one point he writes that he has a “typical rogue attitude to not conform.” He later refers to his “unorthodox thinking” in dealing with medical problems.
A spokeswoman for ZooTampa declined to speculate on what Ball meant. When the Times called Ball’s home seeking comment, he responded with an email that still did not explain the term. Instead, the 52-year-old Carrollwood resident said, “I am pleased to hear you enjoyed the Omen of the Aardvark and I have finally sold a book!”
Ball, a 1992 graduate of the University of Florida’s School of Veterinary Medicine, got his start with the Midway Animal Hospital in Homosassa. The hospital had a contract to provide medical services to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. That meant Ball had a chance to treat everything from recuperating manatees to Lucifer, the park’s beloved hippo.
“He was just an amazing vet,” said K.C. Nayfield, one of the vets who hired Ball. Nayfield couldn’t explain the “rogue” term, saying, “Ray, when he worked for me, was very much by-the-book.”
At one point, Ball was assigned to stitch up the wounded tail of one of the park’s alligators. He sedated it, then he and another vet tied the gator to a ladder and put the ladder into the back of their pickup truck so they could take it to a clinic. Along the way, though, they just had to stop at the Hardee’s drive-through for food.
According to Ball’s memoir, no one at the restaurant batted an eye, although the other vet kept saying, “Hee hee!”
From 1996 to 2010, Ball worked at Busch Gardens in Tampa. The book does not mention the theme park by name, but Ball tells several stories about animals that are among those that can be seen at Busch Gardens.
One involved a large, aging rhino that got stuck in the moat around its enclosure. Ball and another employee tried to push the 3,200-pound animal out, but failed. Then Ball came up with a way to get the rhino moving.
“His testicles were just an arm’s length in front of me,” Ball writes. “I reached between his thighs and gave one of them a slight pinch, and I would swear rhinos could fly. He instantly levitated.”
A Busch Gardens spokeswoman declined to comment on Ball’s tenure there.
Once he arrived at ZooTampa in 2010, Ball became a crucial player in the treatment of important Florida wildlife. He went out to help capture Florida panthers, and treated injured ones. Panther biologist Dave Onorato of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that Ball “has only shown the utmost professionalism.”
ZooTampa is one of the places in the state with a permit to take in injured or ill manatees for rehabilitation. It’s Ball’s treatment of those manatees that landed him in hot water. He stands accused of giving them experimental drug treatments, feeding them hay with minimal nutritional value, slicing off injured flippers and turning the manatees loose with no follow-up care, as well as accidentally killing two with improper treatment.
ZooTampa spokeswoman Kristy Chase-Tozer has defended Ball by pointing out that his fieldwork on injured manatees was supported by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation "to develop and implement field treat-and-release opportunities for entanglements, including amputations, and underweight young, independent animals."
But according to Rob Blumenthal, a spokesman for the foundation, that’s not accurate. The $302,000 grant is intended “to enhance (the zoo’s) capacity to respond to injured marine mammals, including manatees, and increase data collection to inform future management,” he said. The grant also requires complying with all state and federal manatee regulations.
Ball’s fate awaits a report from experts reviewing his reported actions, part of the zoo's response to the federal agency required by Dec. 7. If a story in the book about an obese orangutan is a guide, he may not contest whatever verdict they reach.
Ball tells of how he made a small mistake that led to the orangutan dying. He was so frantic to save the ape that he cut open its chest and began massaging its heart with his bare hands, an act he calls “beyond heroism.” It did not work, and he later wondered if he did it because he feared getting fired, not because he cared about the orangutan.
The big lesson he learned, he writes, is "that I never again thought about the consequences to myself. Punish me, fire me, whatever. I act the best way that I can and willingly accept what happens.”
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.