BamBam, our little manatee, is celebrating the one year anniversary of his arrival to the Cincinnati Zoo. He’s been getting along swimmingly (I love puns and I’m not sorry), and he is starting to enter the awkward adolescent phase. He still has a lot of baby left in him though, and he will usually follow Betsy, our large female, wherever she goes. We often get asked if BamBam is Betsy’s baby, but his story is a lot different from most animals born in zoos. He is part of a manatee rescue, rehabilitation, and release program. He was found in the wild as an orphan, and he had become very sick due to cold water temperatures. BamBam was rescued, and he will be staying with us until he reaches about 600 pounds. At that size, he will be big enough to survive on his own in the wild and will head back to Florida for release.
Being a part of the manatee rehabilitation program is a huge undertaking, and it poses some really unique challenges for the keepers. We always have to keep in mind that the little manatees are going back out into the wild. We stay as hands-off as possible, which means we have to get creative with their care! One particular example is the way we get BamBam his favorite foods. He loves veggies and is most comfortable eating on the bottom of the tank. Our vet wanted us to use sweet potato since it has a lot of good nutrition and calories for a growing sea cow. Unfortunately, we knew that sweet potato floats (as a manatee keeper you end up knowing useless information about the buoyancy of most fruits and vegetables). So, we took some PVC that was disguised to look like logs and drilled holes perfect for sweet potato ‘fries’. These feeders allow us to place BamBam’s treats wherever we would like for him to go. It’s our way of being able to do some training without getting him too accustomed to people.
All of our zoo animals receive enrichment, and this often comes in the form of toys. Since BamBam is going to be in the wild where many novel objects could be dangerous, we have to be very careful of what we offer. Often, we try new foods or natural objects for him to explore. One of our favorites is browse. We will cut leafy branches from trees to place in the pool. This gives the manatees some greens to eat and opportunities to chew on sticks. On occasion, we also use large edible items like pumpkins and watermelons.
It is a lot of work to provide care for an animal that is part of a release program. On top of that, the manatees that are going to be released usually only stay with us for a couple of years. We are often asked if it is difficult to see these manatees go. It is always bittersweet. While we do get attached, we know that this is all part of a much bigger picture. Each time a manatee leaves our tank, it means they are going back to the wild and that we’ve done our job. It means that all of the time and effort was worth it. The wild population of manatees gets to add another member, and we can provide a home for another animal in need. It is no small feat to be a part of this, and I am proud that Cincinnati Zoo is doing something to give these animals a second chance.