Friday, May 21, 1999

Manatees carrying heavy load of hopes

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stoneman and Douglas nuzzle in their new home.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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        Manatees Douglas and Stoneman have no way of knowing it, but there's a lot riding on their broadly sloped shoulders:

        A boost in zoo attendance; the health of Florida's conservation movement; maybe the future of the species itself.

        Douglas and Stoneman are the unlikely stars of the one-of-a-kind, $4 million Manatee Springs exhibit opening Saturday at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

        “The reason it's one of a kind,” says zoo Director Ed Maruska, “is because it's the only exhibit in the world devot ed to just the state of Florida. It's an ecosystem that's unique in the United States.”

        It's also an ecosystem in danger: “Florida is so populous, people are pushing native flora and fauna to the edge of extinc tion,” Mr. Maruska said. “Manatees, for example, were once plentiful there. Now they're critically endangered, with only about 2,500 left in the wild.”

Douglas is 700 pounds.
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        The goal of Manatee Springs is to reverse that trend.

        “We need to get across the message that there's no other environment like that and that it must be preserved,” Mr. Maruska said. “When people come to see the manatees, we'll tack on the broader issue of conservation as well. It's educational, but manatees make it fun education.

        “And we hope that once people are educated, they'll take a more active role in conservation.”

        The goal is the same at the Columbus Zoo. In mid-June, it opens its $10 million Manatee Coast exhibit with four manatees, said Doug Warmolts, assistant director of living collections.

        “Like Cincinnati, we will present and talk about the manatee in the context of its ecosystem. It's only when we learn enough to understand the ecosystem that we care enough to save it. In helping save the ecosystem, manatees help save themselves.”

Stoneman and Douglas move around their tank.
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        The obvious method on saving a species — a captive breeding program to restock the wild — won't work because manatees bred in captivity aren't considered releasable. Without a mother to teach manatee behavior — how to forage for food, complicated migration routes — they can't survive in the wild.

        That's why the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife discourages captive breeding and instead, says Robert Turner, manatee recovery coordinator, “decided to pursue the transfer of appropriate manatees to facilities outside of Florida.”

        Directors Maruska and Warmolts like the idea because they know people will come: “Manatees are unique,” Mr. Maruska said. “They're charismatic, attention-grabbing animals that people can watch forever. They'll certainly be one of our flagship animals.”

        Officials at other facilities exhibiting manatees say the same: At Miami Seaquarium, marketing director Toby Ross is quick to point out that “there's no time of day you can come here and find no one watching manatees. On most days, it's our busiest exhibit.”

  • Who: Manatees Douglas and Stoneman, crocodile Marlin, several alligators and a building full of other species native to Florida, plus more than 100 species of tropical plants imported from Florida.
  • What: Manatee Springs at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
  • When: Opens to the public Saturday. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
  • Where: 3400 Vine St., Avondale.
  • Tickets: Manatee Springs is free with zoo admission: $10; $4.75 children 2-12; $7 seniors 62 and older; parking $5.
  • Information: 281-4700.
        “I'm just back from Sea World of California (San Diego),” Mr. Maruska said, “and they told me that manatees are their most popular exhibit. And that's with killer whales, a species that always draws a crowd.”

        Crowds are what Cincinnati expects as well. Zoo marketing director Donna Oehler projects 53,000 extra people during its first four months, an 8 percent increase over last year.

        The projections are conservative, she thinks, because Cincinnati and San Diego (and Columbus in June) are the only places in the world outside Florida to see a manatee.

        Why now, for the first time since 1910, are manatees showing up outside Florida?

        Florida facilities are crowded with manatees that can't be returned to the wild, Mr. Maruska said, either because of injuries or because they were born in captivity.

        Additionally, the Florida facilities need space for critical care of manatees injured by boat propellers or tangled in fishing line.

        “Fish and Wildlife looked at these needs,” Mr. Maruska said, “and decided the best solution was to allow manatees in other sites around the country.”

        That sits well with Cincinnati's tourism industry: “Oh sure. Any time anything new comes along, we see a boost in tourism,” said Lois Smith, manager of tourist information at the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And if that something new is a manatee, well, I'd look for a bigger than usual boost. People love manatees.”

        That's exactly why Mr. Maruska is so comfortable pinning his hopes on them.

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