ZT Saves: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Through our ZT Saves initiatives, your Zoo plays an active role in protecting and preserving wildlife both in our backyard and around the globe. Despite the challenges that faced our community and the world at large last year, conservation remained a central focus for the Zoo in 2021.

Our work with manatees became more important than ever as state wildlife officials reported a record-breaking number of annual deaths. The David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center reached a milestone of 500 patients since its opening in the early 1990s, and our team assisted Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 21 manatee rescues.

An increased emphasis on sustainability led to the formation of local partnerships that allowed us to expand our composting efforts and host electronics-recycling drives, and a partnership with an international corporation resulting in the replacement of single-use paper cups with reusable, recyclable aluminum cups.

On the global front, the Zoo contributed $20,000 to international conservation programs focused on African elephants, painted dogs, Bornean orangutans and other species on the verge of extinction.

“Our achievements over the past 12 months embody the mission that drives everything we do at the Zoo,” said Tiffany Burns, the Zoo’s director of conservation, research and behavior. “Our plans for 2022 are equally ambitious and will deepen the Zoo’s positive impact on wildlife around the world.”

Keep your eyes on our blog in the coming months to learn what’s next for ZT Saves!


A New Home for Eastern Indigo Snakes

Our eastern indigo snakes have slithered their way into a new behind-the-scenes habitat designed to encourage breeding behavior for this imperiled species. Tucked behind the Sulawesi aviary, this four-stall structure replaces the previous breeding habitat, which had only two stalls and lacked vertical space for perching.

Eastern indigo snakes are solitary animals, and each individual has his or her own stall when they are not breeding. In the coming weeks and months, the snakes will be paired based on Species Survival Plan recommendations. Animal care professionals will closely monitor the reptiles’ behavior to ensure they are a match.

Buried in each stall is a cooler connected to a plastic pipe meant to simulate a gopher tortoise burrow, which eastern indigo snakes naturally use to lay their eggs and seek refuge on chilly days. These snakes are among more than 300 native animal species that utilize gopher tortoise burrows, which can be up to 52 feet long and 23 feet deep.

Animal care professionals will periodically check the coolers for eggs and, if any are found, they will be placed in an incubator to maximize the chances of hatching.

Found throughout Florida and the southern regions of neighboring states, the eastern indigo snake is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act due to habitat loss. In 2018, five snakes cared for by ZooTampa were released in a protected area in southern Alabama through a partnership with the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation and other conservation organizations.

This project was made possible by a gift from Bob Bunting and Beverly Blucher. Keep an eye on our social media channels for updates on the snakes!

World Migratory Bird Day

World Migratory Bird Day - ZooTampa at Lowry ParkWorld Migratory Bird Day - ZooTampa at Lowry ParkWorld Migratory Bird Day - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

October 10th is World Migratory Bird Day, a day dedicated to migrating species of birds across the globe. Birds provide vital services to our environment, from seed distribution to pollination to pest control. Without our respect for and protection of this animal, many essential functions of natural habitats would not flourish.

In Florida, we see our fair share of migratory birds as they “fly south for the winter”. Ducks, geese, and cranes are all examples of migratory birds.

If you want to find out how you can contribute to the conservation of migratory birds, here are 3 ways you can help.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
One of the most common threats to birds is plastic. If it’s made of plastic, it has most likely found its way into Florida waterways at some point in time. Unfortunately, birds often eat plastic when looking for food, or become entangled in it and trapped.

You can help birds by reducing your use of single-use plastic and always recycling plastic trash. Also, make sure to stay updated on local recycling rules and regulations for your area.
Keep an Eye on Your Pets
Domestic cats and dogs kill over 2 billion birds a year. By leashing your pet outside, you can ensure that they don’t harm native or migratory bird species.

If you do come across an injured bird, notify your local FWC Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitators for further information.
Watch When Driving
Car collisions cause between 89 million and 340 million bird deaths a year. To protect birds from cars, always drive carefully and watch for low flying birds.

Some birds are more prone to being hit by cars such as seabirds, owls, and ducks. Always be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to birds in the road.
ZooTampa’s Migratory Birds
You can witness ZooTampa’s migratory birds up-close in our aviaries, flamingo habitat, and at our sandhill crane habitat!

Located on the Florida boardwalk, our sandhill crane habitat is home to 2 of this native Florida species. Flamingos, also located in the Florida area of the park, are one of many species protected under the Migratory Bird Act.

Migratory birds are located all around our park and are an essential part of Florida’s and our country’s ecosystem. Protecting these birds for years to come is critical to ZooTampa’s mission for animal protection, preservation, and conservation.

Manatees and Boat Strikes

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s semiannual report, boat strike injuries are the leading cause of death for Florida manatees so far this year. As a leader in Florida wildlife care, our team at ZooTampa is committed to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of this iconic Florida species.

Our David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center is one of only four manatee critical care centers for manatees in the United States.  Our dedicated staff work vigorously each day with our manatee patients with the hope of releasing these gentle sea cows back into Florida waters.

We encourage you to join us in our mission to protect manatees in the wild by being mindful while boating and following these tips:

  1. Have someone designated as a “manatee lookout” on your boat
  2. Look for “footprints” left in the water by manatees (those circle patterns left on the water’s surface)
  3. Wear polarized sunglasses to better see manatees underwater
  4. Never give a manatee food OR water, as it teaches them to seek out human interaction
  5. Last but not least: GO SLOW in manatee zones and in shallow water, following all posted signs


Making progress on the manatee critical care center

By Joe Couceiro, President and Chief Executive Officer

A hallmark of ZooTampa at Lowry Park is that every day our team takes action to protect the natural world and create exceptional personalized experiences connecting people with wildlife and each other. For example, we recently welcomed the zoo’s first litter of rare, red wolf pups. A new, innovatively designed habitat contributed to the birth of these pups.  This state-of-the-art habitat also allows guests to be part of this unique experience as they see the pups grow and emerge from their den.  For families, we kicked off the summer with a splash – by opening a wild water adventure.  Roaring Springs presented by Pinch A Penny allows guests to trek through Florida and discover endangered native wildlife, then board a boat for a family journey along a flowing stream and feel then feel the roar of a three-story splashdown.  These two additions are now open, and are just a small part of ZooTampa’s recently announced transformation plan.

Additionally, we have been at work behind the scenes on a $3 million upgrade to ZooTampa’s manatee life support capacities.  When the David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center opened more than 25 years ago, it set a new standard for manatee rescue and care. From a uniquely-designed observation area, the center gave guests a view of veterinary and rehabilitation procedures in real time. Zoo visitors fell in love with Florida’s gentle sea cows. Through hundreds of rescues, our manatee care team became leaders in successful manatee rescue, rehabilitation and eventually release, helping move these marine mammals back into the wild, inspiring the next generation of manatee lovers.  The newly improved life support system will allow us to provide more advanced, specialized care for the welfare of the manatees. Now we will be able to treat even the most severe cases.

While work progresses on the center, our team is assisting the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park with the rescue and rehabilitation of sick and injured manatees. Our veterinary and animal care teams continue to conduct research, for which ZooTampa is internationally recognized as leaders in manatee care. We proactively educate visitors about the role we as humans play in ensuring peaceful coexistence with this vulnerable marine mammal found in Florida waters.

After years of planning and fundraising for the project, the center’s renovations are nearing completion. We are on an aggressive schedule to reopen the center this fall and begin receiving manatees in desperate need of care. It’s our mission to protect and conserve wildlife, particularly native Florida species, like the manatee, and we take great pride in helping save them.  Animal care is at the core of everything we do.

Four Extremely Rare Red Wolf Pups Born at ZooTampa at Lowry Park

By Jennifer Galbraith, Animal Care Professional – Florida Mammals

Red wolves are a species that once inhabited the entire Southeast region including Florida. Red wolf populations were decimated in the early part of the 20th century due to habitat loss and predator control programs. Today, they are critically endangered, with only around 200 red wolves remaining in zoos and reintroduction areas. ZooTampa at Lowry Park recently debuted a new red wolf habitat designed to give guests an up-close view of these incredible animals. Red wolves are known for being reclusive and shy with varied colorations, making them almost invisible in their natural environment. However, with the habitat’s new floor-to-ceiling windows guests have a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of these incredible animals.

The Zoo recently introduced a young pair of wolves with the hope that a new generation would soon follow. Our female wolf, “Yona” which means “Bear” and our male, Apollo named after the mythological Greek God who was said to derive from a wolf are both three years old. The introduction took place in early December and the pair quickly became comfortable with each other in their new habitat.  Red Wolves form small family packs with just a male, female and their pups.

Valentine’s Day is extra special for red wolves because it falls right in the heart of Red Wolf breeding season. Breeding season starts in January and goes through the end of February with pups being born in March through May. Near the end of February 2018, Yona and Apollo were observed to be breeding. Over the next 60 days, Yona dug a den under the cypress logs in the center of the habitat, and on April 28th the first faint cries of newborn pups could be heard! Two days later it was possible to visually confirm 4-5 pups curled up around mom. The pups are slowly emerging from their den and guests can see them starting to explore their habitat. It appears Cupid’s arrow has hit the mark, increasing the size of our red wolf family as well as the chances of this beautiful animal reclaiming its role in the wild.

Saving a Species: Eastern Indigo Snakes

Written by Lewis Single, Animal Care Professional 

ZooTampa has partnered with the Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC) to provide a much-needed boost to the wild population of Eastern indigo snakes.  On May 4th, five indigo snakes cared for at ZooTampa were released in the Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama. Twenty snakes in total were released into gopher tortoise burrows throughout the expansive longleaf pine forest.  It is our hope that these individuals will thrive and reproduce to create a stable population of Eastern Indigo Snakes that will prosper for generations to come.

Saving a Species: Eastern Indigo Snakes - ZooTampa at Lowry Park
Saving a Species: Eastern Indigo Snakes - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

At ZooTampa, our work with this project is just beginning. Our goal is to breed indigo snakes in Tampa to be released within their historic range to help the threatened Eastern indigo snake make a big comeback in the Southeastern United States.

ZooTampa would like to thank and recognize The Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation, US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR), the Orianne Society, Auburn University, and US Forest Service for all that they have done to make this possible, and for including us in this determined conservation project.

The Story of Tres

Written by Dr. Ray Ball, Vice President of Medical Sciences & Senior Veterinarian 

What has three bionic legs, leaps into tall trees, lived in ZooTampa at Lowry Park, and now runs in the wild of South Florida?  The only possible answer of course is Tres, the rehabilitated Florida panther.

Tres is a male Florida panther that was hit by a car, actually we believe twice.  He was found along a road with three broken legs, both back legs and his left foreleg.  The FWC biologist and veterinarian rescued him and presented him to the Animal Specialty Hospital in Naples where Dr. Mark Havig made him bionic.  After several hours of surgery, 6 stainless steel plates and 42 screws were placed into Tres broken limbs, he was on his way to Tampa.  He was still not recovered from his surgery when I pulled him out of his travel crate and got him settled in.

The Story of Tres - ZooTampa at Lowry ParkThe Story of Tres - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Figure 1 Fractured left forelimb on Florida panther Tres and the surgical repair.

Within 24 hours he was up on his feet.  Within 48 hours he was leaping.  He did this for a few days then settled in.  Several days later he started to eat and his recovery really began.

Taking care of wild animals, truly wild animals intended to be returned to the wild, is different than the rest of the animals at the Zoo.  For the wild panthers we want to keep them away from people as much as possible, and in Tres case we really want him to stay quiet and heal.  Fortunately the Katherine Starz Veterinary Hospital has just that capacity and Tres was to call this his home for the next several months.  He would need a couple more surgeries to manage his fractures but he really just needed the opportunity to heal.  It can be a delicate balance when to step in and intervene and when to allow an animal to take care of itself.  Tres told us what he needed and when to leave him alone and we listened.

Once Tres was medically cleared by the team at ZooTampa, he was moved to White Oak Plantation in north Florida to allow him some physical therapy time in a large outdoor enclosure.  He would spend a couple months here regaining the fitness he needed to better his chances at survival.  The team could also make sure he did not become too accustomed to people.  Having a releasable panther at ZooTampa was novel.  In the past we had only managed panthers that were not able to be rehabilitated.  Our approach was a little different but it made sense to us.  Only time would really tell if this would work.

The Story of Tres - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Figure 2 Camera trap photo showing a very healthy looking Tres prior to his release.  His behavior also suggested he was ready to be released.

In February the team encompassing the FWC, White Oaks, and ZooTampa gave Tres one last exam and he was determined to be ready to release.  He was fitted with his radio collar and loaded up for his journey back to south Florida.  The five hour journey allowed him plenty of time to recovery from his exam and at the mid-point when I checked on him he was posed very stately in his travel crate.  He was ready.

In carrying out our mission we encounter numerous events that are extremely fulfilling such as seeing a child smile as the otters play or the birth of a rare animal.  But nothing is quite the same as watching a manatee swim away after weeks in the rehabilitation center and seeing an orphan bear cub run into the woods after you have taken care of it.  Or seeing a Florida panther race away from you, becoming invisible in an instant.  We have learned many things from taking care of Tres and seeing him back in the forest of south Florida will stand out in our memory.  We wish him well.  We also hope to never see him again.

The Story of Tres - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Figure 3 Dr Lara Cusack from FWC releases Tres in south Florida.

What is Happening Behind The Scenes in The Reptile House?

By Dan Costell, Animal Care Manager of Herps & Aquatics

MAY 1, 2018 UPDATE The herpetology team will be releasing Indigo snakes that are part of this program back into the wild later this month. Stay tuned for future updates from the field!

What is Happening Behind The Scenes in The Reptile House? - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

On December 17th, the reptile team received 5 juvenile Indigo Snakes from Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation.

Why is this news? These 5 Indigos will be part of a head start program at the zoo for future release into the wild. “Head start” means that we will be caring for them until they are large enough to avoid predation. They will then be released in Southern Alabama in the Conecuh National Forest, on the border of Florida. Possibly as soon as May!

The Indigo is a beautiful black snake that has an iridescent blueish tint in the sun and a brown or orange chin. The Indigo, which often seeks shelter in Gopher tortoise burrows, can grow to between 8 and 9 feet long, and is the longest native snake in the U.S. The Indigo’s historic range included the southernmost tip of South Carolina, west through southern Georgia, Alabama, into eastern Mississippi, and throughout Florida. Today their range is far more restricted and this species is both state and federally listed as “threatened” due to habitat loss and habitat fragmentation.

What can you do to help? If you see them in your yard, leave them be, they are non-venomous. Indigo snakes feed on a variety of small animals, including many species that are considered pest species, like rats and mice. This makes them an apex or top predator that is necessary for a healthy and balanced ecosystem. In other words, they are important to the environment.

The reptile team is very proud to be a part of this Indigo snake head start program and will keep everyone updated as it progresses.


Meet Micanopy

Meet Micanopy – an endangered two-year-old, Florida panther that now calls the Zoo home.

Micanopy is no longer considered viable for release to the wild due to its behavior. He was captured and removed twice from nearby residential areas because he was preying upon pets – putting himself, the public and their pets at risk. Officials with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) first captured Micanopy on April 12, 2016, following 2-3 weeks of run-ins with residents in a neighborhood near Immokalee in Collier County.

Meet Micanopy - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

“Although this panther never displayed aggressive behavior towards humans, the pattern of behavior was concerning enough that we decided to remove it as a proactive response to the risks posed to residents,” said David Shindle, USFWS Florida Panther Coordinator.

The panther likely used exotic vegetation adjacent to houses in the area to hide out and stalk prey. Wildlife officials have since worked with Collier County Housing to remove this vegetation and decrease the likelihood of other panthers or bears lingering too close to residential neighborhoods in the future. Once secured, FWC staff transported Micanopy to our experts here at the Zoo, where he received multiple health assessments. Zoo veterinary professionals gave the panther a clean bill of health, and officials released the animal to the Big Cypress National Preserve in late May.  Nearly a month later, USFWS and FWC again captured the Micanopy on the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Big Cypress Reservation.  The panther was exhibiting the same pattern of behavior, frequenting residential areas and preying on pets.

Meet Micanopy - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

The panther returned to the Zoo, where it received additional medical attention. It was around this time that the Interagency Florida Panther Response Team decided that, due to a lack of change in its behavior, this animal posed a public safety concern and should be permanently removed from the wild. This meant that if officials could not find the panther a suitable home, it would have to be euthanized.

“As soon as we heard he could not be released again, we started looking at our own capacity and that of our partners to see who might be able to take this animal in,” said Dr. Ray Ball, Senior Veterinarian at ZooTampa.

After weighing the options carefully, the Zoo made the decision to house the panther, named “Mickey,” on-site. But this all hinged on one thing – how Mickey got along with Lucy, a resident Florida panther already living at ZooTampa. In December, following an additional round of check-ups, Zoo staff began the process of introducing the two animals. The meetings went well, and the two panthers are now sharing the same habitat and can be seen by zoo visitors along with other native Florida wildlife.

Meet Micanopy - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

“We are happy to have made a difference in the life of this animal, and we stand ready to assist USFWS and FWC with any future panther-related needs,” said Dr. Ball. “The Florida panther is more than an important symbol for the state, it is an integral species in our native ecosystem that our Zoo is dedicated to protecting.”