Save The Manatee!

At the Cincinnati Zoo we have two new Florida manatees that arrived early this spring, two young females sent here as a result of the record sustained cold throughout much of Florida last winter.  “Turner” is 3 years old and weighs about 430 pounds, and “CC Baby” is 4 and weighs in around 520 pounds.

Manatee with Zoo Visitor
Photo by David Jenike

Unlike most of the animals at the Zoo, our manatees don’t stick around all that long – typically just a year or two.  That’s because the Cincinnati Zoo is part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “Manatee Rescue & Release” program.  So the animals that are sent here are in need of rehabilitation and eventually return to the wild in Florida.  It is a complex and expensive program, so as a result, we are one of only two places outside of Florida that exhibit manatees.

“Turner” and “CC Baby” are the 7th and 8th manatees we have had in our Manatee Springs exhibit since it opened in 1999, and they will probably be flown back down to Florida to be released within the next 12 months.  The reason they were initially brought into captivity varies, though.  “Turner” was orphaned as a youngster when her mother was killed by a boat strike, so she was raised at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa until coming here last March.  “CC Baby” was suffering from cold stress in Florida, but now seems to be doing better.

It may seem crazy that a marine mammal that looks so similar to a walrus can suffer from hypothermia.  I mean, walruses and all the other seals and sea lions really love cold water.  But that’s because they are built for it.  They are predators, can swim fast, and have a high metabolism to help keep them warm.

Manatee Swimming
Photo by David Jenike

Manatees, on the other hand, are big ole vegetarians, and pretty slow on the move most of the time.  But like all creatures, manatees are “built for what they do.”  Pretty much all a manatee needs to survive is warm water, above 76 degrees Farenheit, and green plants. They are not too picky either, and will eat everything from sea grasses to the leaves of mangrove trees hanging down to the water.  But unlike many other marine mammals, manatees never get out of the water, so from birth to death, theirs is a life aquatic.  That means they are born in the water.  And they even have to sleep in the water, which is one of the reasons they are almost always in shallow areas, since they sleep on the bottom.  To help with this manatees have an extra heavy skeleton, complete with solid ribs.  But even when sleeping they swim to the surface every 20 minutes or so.

Now, I may be the last person left who cannot believe the fame and affection that is poured upon these Sirenians.  When I was a kid fishing the waters of Florida a half-century ago, nobody made a big deal at all if we saw what was then mostly referred to as a “sea cow.”  We went completely nuts if we saw a water moccasin or a sea turtle, but in those tea-colored tannic waters of the Saint John’s River, manatees went largely unnoticed.

Manatee in Water
Photo by David Jenike

Today, of course, just yell “manatee!” and there’ll be a traffic jam on any bridge in Florida.  Some of that is due to a heightened awareness of conservation issues, but hey, you don’t see that reaction to the plight of the gopher tortoise or the Key Largo wood rat.

I think people are so wild about manatees because increasingly they are able to see them well in clear water.  Places like Crystal River near Tampa, and Blue Springs north of Orlando, are old standards, where particularly in winter you can see manatees in clear water.  But Sea World, Disney, and the half dozen zoos that exhibit manatees have most certainly played a big role in telling the story of these endangered animals and the challenges they face.

So, what actually is the problem with manatees anyway?  How come they are more endangered than, say, bottlenose dolphins, which you can also frequently see off the Florida shore?  Well, of course today we live in an increasingly fast-paced world, one which manatees are just not built for.  In 2010 there are more than 1,000,000 registered power boats in Florida.  And you may have noticed that boats have gotten crazy fast.  I have a friend with a bass boat that cost more than my Subaru and I swear it’s faster!  And, jet skis are extra tough on manatees since they are very quick and tremendously erratic in their movements, not to mention that almost everybody races their jet skis in calm, shallow waters.The good news is that manatees are not going to disappear.  They live in an incredibly wide range of Florida waters, and their needs are simple.  And the solution to our human/manatee conflict is pretty simple as well.  If boaters respect “no wake” zones and make room for manatees, as well as other aquatic wildlife, we can both thrive and be better off for it.