Zoo veterinarian cleared of manatee deaths

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Officials at ZooTampa at Lowry Park in Tampa, Florida, have determined that the actions of a zoo veterinarian did not cause the deaths of any manatees.

The zoo announced on Dec. 10 that it had completed a review of its manatee care program, which rehabilitates wild manatees, and responded to 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 zoo veterinarian Dr. Ray Ball did not cause the deaths of two manatees in the zoo's care.

Joe Couceiro, the zoo's CEO and president, said Dr. Ball did not cause any manatees to die, nor did he amputate the flipper of an injured manatee in 2015. Dr. Ball returned to work after being on leave during the internal investigation conducted by the independent panel. Going forward, Dr. Ball will treat other animals at the zoo but not manatees.

"Many of the complaints made with respect to Dr. Ball were the results of misunderstandings and misinterpretations," Couceiro told reporters on a conference call.

ZooTampa is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is one of a handful of U.S. institutions authorized by the USFWS to rescue and rehabilitate West Indian manatees, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The zoo's manatee program has treated more than 400 sick or injured manatees since 1991. The number of wild West Indian manatees is estimated around 13,000 animals, with more than 6,500 in the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico.

The zoo will be making changes to its Animal Welfare Committee, which 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, according to the zoo.

Underwater photo of a manatee
Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)