Lending a Helping Hand
"Conservation is at the core of everything we do at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium,” says Dr. Joseph Gaspard, Director of Science and Conservation. So when the direct request came for assistance in an unprecedented rescue and release of a large group of manatees along the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, both Dr. Gaspard and Paul Moylett, Curator of Aquatic Life jumped at the chance to be part of the team.
They joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as well as a number of organizations including Sea World Orlando, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) – including staff from St. Petersburg, the Northeast Florida Field Lab in Jacksonville, and the East Central Field Lab in Melbourne along with volunteers and law enforcement, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Sea to Shore Alliance, ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, NOAA National Ocean Services - Charleston, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), Clearwater (FL) Marine Aquarium, the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, Brevard Zoo, Brevard County Parks and Recreation, Florida Wildlife Hospital, and Waterfront Solutions.
The mission was critical. When the Charleston waters cooled late last year, the manatees did not migrate further south for warm waters as they naturally do. Instead, this larger-than-usual group of manatees elected to remain in an artificial warm-water outflow.
Manatees are temperature-sensitive marine mammals. If water is warmer than the low 80’s, they can possibly overheat, but if the waters are cooler than 68 degrees they can succumb to cold stress syndrome, akin to hypothermia.
The local area had experienced this same situation with manatees several times, though the number of manatees that remained at the warm-water source was surprising. Local officials alerted U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, who then reached out to organizations including the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for assistance in a manatee rescue and release.
In late November, as a winter chill settled in South Carolina, groups of dedicated rescuers gathered together along the banks of the Charles River to receive their assignments for the next three days of the rescue mission.
The rescue operation was slow, precise, and physically demanding. Three boats carried veterinarians, animal keeper staff, researchers, and those “with muscle” to help with the heavy lifting. The rest of the crew was ready on land.
A large net was used to encircle a small, manageable number of manatees, ensuring the safety of the manatees and the rescue personnel. Manatees are very strong and require special handling, necessitating the very skilled rescue team that was experienced in working with manatees. The manatee was then maneuvered into the proper position and brought onto boats specifically used for rescues.
Once on board, the manatees were given a quick health assessment and taken back to shore to be hoisted off the boat. On land, veterinarians did a more intensive health check before the manatees were boarded onto large trucks for the trip to Jacksonville Zoo then on to Brevard, Florida for release. Only one of the manatees rescued was kept at Jacksonville Zoo’s new manatee critical care facility for further care.
”This manatee rescue was truly a team effort. It was a privilege to work side-by-side with other animal professionals dedicated to saving wildlife,” says Dr. Gaspard. “Having this opportunity to participate in a manatee rescue not only shows the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s dedication to protecting and caring for all animals, but assists in our work to study and learn about animals. Any information that we get from research whether it be in a zoo or in the wild leads to positive advancements in the care and conservation of all animals.”
Dr. Gaspard has over 18 years of experience working with manatees. His previous manatee research at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Florida provided valuable information that now assists wildlife organizations in their care and conservation efforts for manatees. Mr. Moylett has extensive experience working with marine mammals as well.
To learn more about the conservation efforts the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium supports, please visit www.pittsburghzoo.org/conservation