The newest patient was a 1,075-pound female, rescued a few days earlier, and one of many made ill by the red tide on Florida’s southwest coast.
“We’ve had a total of 17 come in,” said zookeeper Jennifer Galbraith. “Honestly we wish there were more because the more that come in here means fewer that end up on the necropsy table. We’ve lost over 400, and we saved only 17. That’s not good.”
Boats usually are the main cause of death for manatees, which often move at or near the water’s surface and are vulnerable to collisions with the hull or propeller.
But last year’s red tide, the worst since 2007, was larger and stayed longer than usual, starting in early October and still detectable in May. It wiped out about 10 percent of the manatee population.
Red tide is a naturally occurring algal bloom. Manatees breathe or ingest toxins produced by the algae, then have seizures and often drown.
The red tide victims “seem like they have a panic attack when you take them out of the water,” Galbraith said. The zookeepers outfit the animals with lifejackets normally worn by humans, then stay with them in shallow pools, often for several hours, to keep their heads above water.
“They essentially have to keep them from drowning while there are still toxins in their systems,” said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club.
Rose is a large man with a gentle, easygoing nature, and he probably won’t be offended to hear that he looks a little bit like a manatee. While I spoke with the zookeepers, the biologist filmed the swimming animals with an underwater camera fixed to a pole.
Even after the algal bloom has thinned out, the toxins remain in the manatees’ habitat and principal food supply of sea grass perhaps for months. The eight manatees at the hospital when I visited were consuming about 800 pounds of food each day, much of it in romaine lettuce.
“We can’t really release them yet even though they’re physically ready,” Galbraith said, “because red tide is still in the area and we’d be just throwing them back into the fire, so to speak.”
Rose and I left the Tampa hospital, and drove north to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a manatee sanctuary where some recovering creatures reside until it’s safe to return to the wild.
Besides being a lovably gentle creature -- and the state aquatic mammal -- the manatee keeps sea grass healthy, the way grazing ruminants are essential to the health of prairie grass.
Manatees have been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades, but some antigovernment types are lobbying to downgrade the listing and loosen protections.
When a Florida woman was arrested last year for riding on the back of a manatee, Tea Party wackaloons rose to her defense. One was interviewed on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” and Rose appeared as a deadpan counterpoint and advocate for the animals.
Most of the manatees I saw at the zoo and Homosassa Springs were scarred by encounters with boats, with cruel stripes torn into their backs by spinning propellers. Boating magazine crassly referred to manatees as “floating speed bumps” in a recent commentary, which pained Rose since he spends much of his time trying to find ways manatees and humans can coexist.
“There’s not a problem with the average boater. They are very supportive,” he told me. For one thing it is often a recreational boater who will keep a seizuring manatee afloat and breathing until a rescue team arrives. “We’ve got boaters out there who are responsible for manatees being alive today.”
The staff at Lowry Park Zoo began releasing fully recovered manatees back to the wild in June.
Rose dunked his camera in the water again, holding it still so that the manatees came right up to inspect it. He lingered with his camera a long while, getting more and more footage of the gentle mammals in action, if you can call their ponderously slow swimming “action.”
“I can’t get enough of manatees,” he said.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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