Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A manatee migration with a twist

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Douglas the manatee is returning to Florida.
Long migrations are common for manatees, which gracefully swim from the Carolinas to warmer Florida waters every fall. Saturday, one manatee will make his migration from Cincinnati on a cargo jet.

Douglas, the 9-year-old manatee who has spent the past four years as an ambassador on display in a 150,000-gallon tank at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, is returning home to Florida.

During his Cincinnati stay, Douglas left a lasting impression on hundreds of thousands of zoo visitors who passed through the Manatee Springs exhibit. For the 10,000 people who participated in a special program, Douglas taught them about his species' ongoing struggle for survival.

His stay may also help to keep his species alive. Local researchers studied Douglas' hearing to try to understand why manatees can't seem to hear motorboats. In the wild, manatees often collide with speedboats, which is one of the most common threats they face.

"He's such a sweet animal, you can't help but develop a relationship with him," said Eric Todd, one of the two handlers who have cared for Douglas since his 1999 arrival. "I've got baby pictures of him above my fireplace mantel along with my kids."

No small feat

Now deemed healthy enough to survive on his own, Douglas will be flown to the Miami Seaquarium, where he will spend three months learning the skills he'll need to survive. He'll learn to graze on sea grass at the bottom of his aquarium, instead of munching on lettuce floating on the surface. He'll get used to moving from salt water to fresh water and back again. He'll learn to adjust to changes in water temperature.

Going Home: How the manatee will be transported (PDF)
If all goes well, Douglas will be released somewhere off the Florida Keys in February or March.

But at more than 900 pounds, getting Douglas through baggage check at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport will require a coordinated effort by dozens of zoo officials, a trucking company and a cargo airliner.

Len Hughes will ride shotgun with Douglas inside the 450-pound crate for the two-hour flight. Hughes flew with Douglas from Florida to Cincinnati and knows the drill. Hughes will spray down the mammal about every 10 minutes to keep his skin moist and keep tabs on Douglas' breathing and body temperature.

The temperature inside the plane will be kept at a constant 75 degrees.

Hughes said he's come to terms with losing Douglas, but added that he remains worried about him in the wild.

"I know this is what's best for Douglas," Hughes said. "I'll feel better knowing he's back out where he belongs. But it's hard, because he's become an extension of my family."

Saying goodbye

Gregg Hudson, president and CEO of the zoo, said a lot of people feel that way about Douglas, who has helped make Manatee Springs one of the zoo's biggest draws.

"It's safe to say Douglas is one of our most popular animals," he said.

In the past three years, 10,000 people have spent the night with Douglas in the zoo's overnight educational program "Sleep with the Manatee." The zoo also held two jam-packed programs this month called "Bon Voyage, Douglas."

Laine Barresi of Anderson Township takes her 4-year-old daughter, Molly, to the zoo about every other week. Douglas is a must-see every time, she said.

"We can sit in here for hours, and she just loves it because it's one of the few exhibits where you can get right up close to the animal," Barresi said. "That makes her feel like she's interacting with the manatees. She's learned about endangered animals, and she understands this is a second chance for Douglas to go back where he came from."

Kate Eaton, a 7-year-old from West Chester, said she visits Douglas every time she goes to the zoo.

"I like how they swim. I swim a lot, too," said the second-grader at Freedom Elementary. "I think he's going to have to get used to a lot of things. I'm not too worried about him, he'll just have to find some friends because he didn't see his mom a lot and he might not know what to do."

With fingers crossed

Dr. Maya Menchara has already picked out a friend for Douglas - a 21/2 -year-old male named Buttons, who will be released alongside Douglas.

Menchara, a veterinarian with the Seaquarium, said releasing Douglas with a buddy is important for the reason Kate said: He'll need to learn migratory routes and the location of food and fresh water sources. That's easier with a buddy.

Douglas and Buttons will wear radio transmitters, so researchers can track their movements and capture them twice a year to give them physicals and blood tests. Still, dangers lurk, including collisions with boats, outbreaks of the algae Red Tide and fishing line or crab traps that can maim or kill the animals.

"For us, what's difficult is releasing these animals knowing they will face a 10 percent mortality rate," Menchara said.

And many people in Cincinnati will track Douglas' every move with fingers crossed. The zoo plans to make his movements part of the manatee exhibit.

"Douglas is getting a second chance to have a normal life," said Todd, the handler. "But I can't help but worry about him a little bit."


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