Is there enough space to house rescued manatees in Florida? Wildlife officials think so

Caring for a malnourished manatee is no easy task: it can take constant attention, such as tube feeding three times a day, to feed a sick manatee back to health.

From start to finish, the rehabilitation process can take more than a year and cost nearly $3,000 per month per animal, according to Sandra Torres, a spokeswoman for ZooTampa. Less intense recoveries can take months.

As the unprecedented famine event sparks demand for more long-term care for Florida manatees, wildlife biologists say they are confident there is enough space across the state to house the trapped animals.

Since the death began in early 2021, more than 260 sheep have been needed to save the state, according to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission data.

The majority of rescues took place at the epicenter, in and around the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County on Florida’s Atlantic coast. In that area, loss of seaweed due to pollution has left manatees scrambling, often unsuccessfully, for a sustainable food source. More than 700 animals have died there in two years.

There are 79 manatees currently in rehabilitation facilities across Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Puerto Rico, according to Terry Callison, Florida manatee commander for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Of those, 84% are in Florida facilities — and ZooTampa, SeaWorld in Orlando, and the Jacksonville Zoo provide room for more.

With construction of a new rehabilitation space due for completion soon, along with the upcoming release of several sea cows, biologists are hoping they can handle the demand as cold winter waters threaten manatees. (It can become stressed in water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.)

“We are now firmly in the winter. I am very optimistic about where we are now in terms of the critical care space,” Callison said in a virtual conference with reporters on Wednesday.

Related: As winter approaches, 3 orphaned manatees are shipped from ZooTampa to Cincinnati
In this November 5, 2022 photo, Hannah Walsh of the ZooTampa Manatee Rescue Team massages Piccolina, one of three orphaned manatees, before transferring a sea cow to the Cincinnati Zoo for ongoing care, in Tampa.  The three orphaned manatees were rescued and are being cared for in the intensive care center at ZooTampa and will eventually be released once they are fully rehabilitated.
In this November 5, 2022 photo, Hannah Walsh of the ZooTampa Manatee Rescue Team massages Piccolina, one of three orphaned manatees, before transferring a sea cow to the Cincinnati Zoo for ongoing care, in Tampa. The three orphaned manatees were rescued and are being cared for in the intensive care center at ZooTampa and will eventually be released once they are fully rehabilitated. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Manatee rehabilitation specialists are preparing to release 20 recovered manatees back into the wild by the end of February. Callison said ZooTampa also plans to release three manatees, which were initially brought in after being exposed to boating or cold stress. And to help create more space, 20 new spaces for sick and injured manatees are expected to open at SeaWorld over the next few months.

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All of this means biologists will be able to house an additional 40 to 50 sheep, Kalson said.

“This will put us in a better place,” she said.

Related: Florida wildlife officials will be feeding manatees again this winter to reduce mortality

The Florida Environment Agency received $20 million last year to expand its network of manatee care facilities and improve manatee rescue and recovery efforts, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Twenty sheep died in rehabilitation facilities last year, Calson said, and 25 died in 2021.

More manatees died statewide in 2021 than in any other year in state history, with 1,110 deaths recorded that year. Last year, nearly 800 more people died, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission’s most recent data.

The final solution to the problem – serious and large-scale restoration of the ecosystem – is still far from everyone’s reach. But to help limit the unprecedented deaths in the short term, last winter state and federal wildlife officials agreed to feed manatees in a first-of-its-kind feeding experiment.

Wildlife biologists put nearly 100 tons of lettuce and butter during last year’s three-month experiment, from December to March, at Florida Power & Light’s Cape Canaveral Clean Energy Center in Brevard County, a popular place for manatees to cuddle up for warmth. . Abnormal power plant discharges. This year, biologists have already received nearly 35,000 pounds of lettuce, according to Thomas Van Trees, incident commander with the Florida Wildlife Commission.

“Especially with the cold front we’ve had, we’re fully operational,” Van Treese told reporters on Wednesday. “We are really going forward with full force.”

Florida wildlife officials encourage the public to report sick or injured manatees by calling the Wildlife Alert Hotline number at 888-404-3922.

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