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State funding proposed to help manatee rehabilitation at ZooTampa

Funds could construct a baby manatee nursery recovery pool, along with an overlook bridge aimed to serve as a public education tool.

TAMPA, Fla. — Part of Florida's $112 billion proposed budget could go toward programs aimed at caring for manatees at ZooTampa at Lowry Park.

Manatee deaths in 2021 were by far the worst on record in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The state agency reported 1,101 manatees deaths — almost double the rate from 2020 of 637 manatee deaths. 

Wildlife experts fear that trend will continue into the year. 

"The population is pretty low already," said Molly Lippincott, the curator of Florida manatees at ZooTampa. "It's going take everything we can do to hopefully save the species."

ZooTampa works with the FWC to rescue, rehab, and release orphaned, injured and sick manatees back to the wild.

The funding, part of FWC's proposed budget, would include $1.5 million to construct an overlook bridge that will allow guests to have a view of the work done at the Manatee Hospital, the largest non-profit manatee care center worldwide.

Guests would be able to safely see the efforts to help manatees, and it also aims to educate them on the impact of red tide, pollution and boat strikes on manatees. It would be the first phase of a bigger project, according to the request. 

In addition, $620,000 would go toward the construction of a baby manatee nursery recovery pool and water filtration system. The move would also allow staff to care for other manatees in need, Lippincott said. 

"We've seen a record number of orphans come in our doors in the last year," Lippincott said. "We can take in those animals more readily."

Lippincott said there's progress in the attention manatee deaths are getting and hopefully, the efforts of everyone involved will be enough.

FWC states it is continuing to investigate the causes of the record number of deaths but that an initial assessment indicated a high number are emaciated due to a decline in seagrass and macroalgae.  

In response to the unusual mortality event (UME) declared after the record-breaking number of manatee deaths, FWC has been taking part in a lettuce feeding trial for manatees facing starvation off Florida's east coast.

So far, FWC has seen success but more information is needed to measure the impact of its progress long-term.

As of Tuesday, ZooTampa states it is caring for 13 manatees. In the past 30 years, ZooTampa has treated more than 500 critically injured, sick, or orphaned manatees, according to its requests. 

The governor has yet to sign off on the proposed budget. 

FWC is also expected to provide an update on its feeding program on Wednesday. 

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