Statement from ZooTampa at Lowry Park: Response to USFWS manatee inquiry

ZooTampa at Lowry Park has completed an extensive review of its manatee care program and on Friday afternoon provided responses to four questions raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about manatee treatments. Informed by an independent panel’s assessment, the Zoo found that actions by lead veterinarian, Dr. Ray Ball, D.V.M. did not cause the death of any manatees.

Because of the Zoo’s longstanding commitment to manatee rescue and rehabilitation and the role of our zoo to save this important Florida species, our in-depth review extended well beyond the questions raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We asked for an independent assessment by a panel of experienced, licensed veterinarians, who reviewed dozens of cases as well as the manatee program’s facilities, personnel, policies, protocols, practices and the environment in which the program operates. An internal zoo team also reviewed these areas. During the review, Dr. Ball remained on administrative leave.

The panel’s review looked specifically at questions regarding treatment of manatees in need of critical care after being stranded or physically injured or compromised, often with multiple conditions. The panel did not conclude that any specific practices, over which concerns were raised, caused the death of a manatee.

During the five-week review, ZooTampa veterinarian Dr. Lauren Smith, D.V.M., was appointed interim lead veterinarian for the Zoo. She will continue to be the zoo’s lead veterinarian for manatees as the Zoo works to improve communications and processes. Dr. Smith brings excellent skills, experience and perspective to the manatee critical care program. She will report to Larry Killmar, Ph.D., senior vice president and Chief Zoological Officer on all manatee care issues.

Dr. Ball will return to work and provide veterinarian care for the more than 300 species of zoo animals, except for manatees. The exception will be for an indefinite period while Zoo management, with Zoo Board oversight, works with Dr. Ball to develop stronger, routine collaborative practices and to improve communication with staff and peers. The Zoo recognizes that strong collaboration with partners is essential and it is a priority for our team. We also will continue to periodically evaluate the progress.

Manatees are special animals. They are protected and managed federally by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act and at the state level by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, and their care requires extensive collaboration and consultation with conservation and rescue partners. For nearly three decades, ZooTampa at Lowry Park has been entrusted in emergency situations to intervene, triage and save hundreds of critically injured and sick manatees in the wild— with the goal of returning each one to its native waters.

In addition to these changes and process improvements, we are instituting changes to our Zoo’s Animal Welfare Committee that conducts internal reviews and its process for examining and following up on complaints. The Committee will regularly

report to Zoo leadership and staff on its activities and the resolution of concerns.

We appreciate the service and work of the three, licensed veterinarians with expertise in manatee critical care who participated in the independent review. An attorney, who is recognized expert in regulatory and legal issues on animal welfare and wildlife conservation, facilitated the review process.

The Zoo is one of only four providers of critical care for manatees in the United States and the only one on Florida’s west coast. Since 1991, the Zoo has worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership – of which, the Zoo is a founding member – to rescue and rehabilitate more than 400 manatees— more than 6 percent of the known population. The Zoo invests nearly $1 million every year to manatee work and only $400,000 of that investment is reimbursed by public agencies to save manatees.

Please note: The Zoo’s report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be available on request after 12 p.m. on Tuesday giving the agency the courtesy of a day to review the report.

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About ZooTampa at Lowry Park

ZooTampa at Lowry Park is operated by the Lowry Park Zoological Society, an independent 501(c)(3) charitable organization committed to excellence in conservation, education, recreation and research. The Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and is featured among the “Top 25 Zoos in the U.S” by TripAdvisor (2015). The Zoo is located at 1101 W. Sligh Avenue in Tampa, and is open seven days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours for select events. Parking is free. For more, visit www.ZooTampa.org or call (813) 935-8552. Also, find the Zoo on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.