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Hello, DHL: We Need to Ship a Sea Cow

It never ceases to amaze us how far dedicated conservationists can think “outside the box” to save a species that faces a perilous future - in this case Manatees, also known as Sea Cows, who faced potential extinction. In recent decades, their efforts certainly give us pause to appreciate all the good in humanity. Manatees are a critical part of the marine ecosystem off the Florida coast.



The NYTimes recently published an article about the massive rescue efforts to raise 3 female baby manatees that were swimming alone in shallow waters off Florida’s west coast, orphaned due to some tragedy that befell their mothers. The babies that usually weigh 60+ pounds at birth only weighed around 40, the tiniest calves ever treated. No one knows what happened to the mothers of the three babies. Normally, a calf stays with its mother for up to two years, as it learns where to find food and to plot out the warm-water areas it will need to survive cold spells.



The babies named Calliope, Soleil and Piccolina, were brought to ZooTampa’s manatee hospital, joining the dozens of manatees each year that are admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit. Bottle fed for much of their time in Tampa, they were treated for nearly 18 months, before they were moved to make room for more rescues. When they were moved, each weighed between 375 and 400 pounds. The secondary facility’s goal was to double their weight before they would be returned to Tampa and released to the wild. Besides the Tampa hospital there are three facilities that can take in manatees: Columbus Zoo, Sea World Orlando and Cincinnati Zoo, the latter of which took in the afore mentioned 3 rescued manatees.


I was particularly impressed to learn that the global shipping company, DHL, thinks outside its boxes to become the “goto” shipping solution for manatees. Headquartered close to the Cincinnati Zoo, DHL has created a solution for the consortium of more than 20 agencies and organizations that collaborate on manatee rescue and rehabilitation. Protection of the Manatee began in earnest in 1970s when their population hovered around 1,000. Today their population has grown to over 10,000, attributable to an increase in habitat protection and speed restrictions for boats. The species is still considered threatened, due to climate change and a growing population in Florida that increases the chance for red tide, a harmful algae bloom that can not only kill the manatees directly but chokes the seagrass they need to survive.



In Ohio, Calliope, Soleil and Piccolina each grew to nearly 800+ pounds, dining on romaine, endive, kale, escarole, green leaf lettuce, napa cabbage and bok choy. They often gobbled the greens from containers on the bottom of the tank, arranged to imitate seagrasses. They gained nearly a pound a day.


Zoos pick up much of the tab for manatee care and rehabilitation while they are in human care. The manatee program at ZooTampa costs about $1 million a year, covered by a combination of ticket sales and state funding. Money from the sale of manatee license plates and decals, boat registration fees and donations is funneled into a state trust fund for the species. Annual proceeds from these sales average about $4 million.


Moving a manatee that weighs nearly 1,000 pounds starts with getting them out of the water, un-sedated, because sedation could mask a medical emergency during the operation. A calm demeanor is necessary to be hoisted in a hammock out of the water into a custom-built waterless container with 8 inches of foam as bedding and flown across the country in a specially outfitted cargo plane. The sea cows have tolerated the moves quite well and exhibited little stress during the transfers. Manatee transport requires significant planning and logistics. The cows 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. The vets report that the manatees just “chillax,” although they do defecate a lot!


Manatee air ticket prices vary depending on weight and how much other cargo is on the flight. For this trip, the Cincinnati Zoo paid about $21,000 for the first-class sleeping pods on the return flight to Florida.



In the past decade, more than 800 orphaned, sick, or injured manatees have been taken to critical care centers and capacity is expanding with ZooTampa building two additional medical pools, and SeaWorld Orlando, three last year. Manatees’ life span can be well into their 60s, so this 2+-year effort for young rescues is worthwhile to the preservation of the species. DHL for its part has been involved in the return of 26 manatees from Cincinnati Zoo and 37 to date from Columbus.


Calliope, Soleil and Piccolina have been recently released in the wild in a fitting place named Three Sisters Springs. All have tracking devices and are reported to be doing well, calmly floating about in the waters off the coast of west Florida.


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