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Orlando, Florida

SeaWorld Orlando helps rehabilitate orphaned manatees

06 Oct 2023

Eight manatees were flown more than 1,000 miles back to their temporary Florida homes at the beginning of October, the successful culmination of more than two years of rescue work by four zoological/marine institutions to save the beloved sea cows.

In an intricate operation, the manatees – weighing a total of almost 6,000 pounds – were placed in custom-built containers to help them travel safely and then driven to the Cincinnati International Airport at the DHL Express Global hub. All of the manatees were loaded onto a specially scheduled DHL cargo plane to head to Florida, where they will complete the final stages of their rehabilitation journey before they return to the waters where they were initially rescued.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, ZooTampa at Lowry Park and SeaWorld Orlando have partnered for several years to rehabilitate these eight orphans.

“Manatees are a critical part of our aquatic ecosystems, and we've been honored to be involved in their rescue, rehabilitation, and return for 47 years, working alongside our partners, including the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership, to help preserve these beloved Florida icons," said Dr. Joseph Gaspard, Vice President of Zoological Operations at SeaWorld Orlando. "We have the capacity to care for up to 60 manatees in need at a time in our critical care facility in Orlando, which is one of only a few in the U.S. for the treatment of marine animals. A close collaboration among the zoological community, where we transfer stable rehabilitating animals between facilities, is important to free up critical care space and ensure that together we save as many manatees as we can."

Five orphaned manatees, the largest number ever moved at once from the Columbus Zoo, were transferred to SeaWorld Orlando. Four had previously been cared for at SeaWorld before moving to Columbus Zoo in January 2022, and one came from Miami Seaquarium in 2020.

Three manatees left Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and headed back to ZooTampa to prepare for their release back into Florida waters. When they were rescued in spring and summer of 2021, the three were some of the tiniest calves ever treated at ZooTampa’s David A. Straz, Jr. Critical Care Center.

All three calves received intensive care, including bottle feeding, at ZooTampa for 18 months before being moved to Cincinnati Zoo’s Manatee Springs in November 2022 for rehabilitation. They will be cared for at ZooTampa until they can be released into Crystal River in February.

“These transfers are extremely important as it allows us to make room to care for critically injured, ill and orphaned manatees,” said Tiffany Burns, senior director of animal programs. “We are grateful to our partners in Ohio for providing secondary rehabilitation. It’s an incredible team effort and we are excited about the manatees’ return to Florida waters early next year.”

DHL Express transported the manatees in custom-built, state-of-the art containers, accompanied by a Cincinnati Zoo staff veterinarian and Columbus Zoo Animal Care curator, who monitored the manatees’ condition throughout the flight.

The containers were secured on palettes attached to the floor of the plane for stability. The manatees rested on a comfortable, 8-inch-thick bed of foam. They were covered in wool and space blankets to maintain a healthy body temperature and constantly monitored during the flight by care specialists using laser thermometers. To keep their bodies moist, the animals were misted with water under their blankets throughout the flight.

“Moving manatees is an extremely complex process that involves significant planning and logistics to ensure that each specific need is met throughout the journey,” said Cain Moodie, SVP Network Operations, DHL Express Americas. “We are thrilled to play a key role in this initiative to support endangered manatees in the wild, leveraging our team’s expertise to ensure each animal is transported as quickly and safely as possible.”

Yet even as these eight return to their homeland, the conservation work to save manatees never ends – accompanied by a Columbus Zoo veterinarian and Cincinnati Zoo Animal Care team member, five young manatees also caught the return flight back to Ohio to continue their rehabilitation.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium received two new male manatees. Both were rescued as orphaned calves from Charlotte County, Florida on January 20, 2023. They were observed in the same area alone with declining body conditions. At the time of rescue, they were still being bottle fed and now have been weaned for several months.

“We are incredibly proud to collaborate with our dedicated colleagues to help make a difference in the lives of these amazing animals. While it can be a bit bittersweet to see the manatees return to Florida since they all hold a special place in our hearts, it is also a proud moment for us because we know their rehabilitation has been successful. Other manatees are also in need of our help, and we are committed to continue playing a significant role in helping the species survive for the future,” said Becky Ellsworth, curator of the Shores and Aquarium region at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden also welcomed three new females. “As a second-stage rehab facility, we give manatees individual care for several months, including providing plenty of food and veterinary care, until they’re big and strong enough to go home,” said Kim Scott, Curator of Mammals at Cincinnati Zoo. “We may be far from Florida waters, but we love caring for these remarkable animals.”

The manatees were rescued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP), a cooperative group of non-profit, private, state, and federal entities who work together to monitor the health and survival of manatees.

As part of the MRP, ZooTampa and SeaWorld provide critical care, including urgent veterinary treatment, to injured manatees in Florida. The Columbus and Cincinnati zoos are two of only three facilities outside of Florida to care for manatees and serve as second-stage rehabilitation facilities to provide temporary homes, food, and veterinary care for manatees until they are ready to return back to Florida waters.

Including these eight manatees who recently left Ohio, the Cincinnati Zoo has returned 26 manatees to Florida, and the Columbus Zoo has returned 37. To date, ZooTampa has treated more than 500 manatees, and SeaWorld has helped 942 while coming to the aid of 45 manatees in 2023 alone.

Florida manatees are at risk from natural and human-caused threats, including exposure to the loss of sea grass, red tide, cold stress, disease, boat strikes, crushing by flood gates or locks and entanglement or ingesting of fishing gear.

“It is an ongoing, crucial care cycle that we have going between our partnering facilities,” said Virginia Edmonds, Chair, Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership. “That’s the heart of this partnership, working together as manatees continue to face ongoing threats in the Florida waters and knowing we are helping to make a difference.”

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