Mana­tee care re­viewed

Pa­pers say a ZooTampa vet cut off flip­pers and then turned an­i­mals loose.

Tampa Bay Times - - Local - BY CRAIG PITTMAN Times Staff Writer

ZooTampa has as­sem­bled a panel of vet­eri­nar­i­ans to pore over claims that its se­nior vet­eri­nar­ian en­gaged in malpractice that killed at least two man­a­tees and harmed oth­ers.

They will find one of the com­plaints against Ray Ball doc­u­mented in pho­tos and re­ports from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion.

The per­son who filed it is the state’s top mana­tee vet­eri­nar­ian.

The re­ports and pho­tos show that on two oc­ca­sions, Ball lopped off the in­jured flip­pers of wild man­a­tees and then put the an­i­mals back in the wa­ter with­out fur­ther care or re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion — even though they had bones stick­ing out of the raw wound.

Ball did that over the ob­jec­tions of Mar­tine de Wit, who over­sees the state’s mana­tee pathol­ogy lab­o­ra­tory as well as the mana­tee res­cue teams. Af­ter Ball over­ruled her, she took her con­cerns to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, the agency in charge of is­su­ing per­mits to han­dle in­jured man­a­tees.

Ball has been sus­pended from treat­ing man­a­tees at ZooTampa (for­merly called Lowry Park Zoo) while the agency in­ves­ti­gates what it called “cred­i­ble re­ports” that he mis­treated some.

The al­le­ga­tions range from ad­min­is­ter­ing a med­i­cal test that ac­ci­den­tally killed two man­a­tees to us­ing ex­per­i­men­tal drugs on them and feed­ing young ones hay in­stead of the aquatic veg­e­ta­tion they need.

One of the “cred­i­ble re­ports” con-

cerns the am­pu­ta­tions. An Oct. 22 let­ter from the fed­eral agency to ZooTampa says Ball per­formed them “with­out treat­ment for in­fec­tion and pain,” and that he re­leased the man­a­tees “with ex­posed bones.”

Re­ports of mana­tee cap­tures from March 2015 and Oc­to­ber 2017 give fur­ther de­tails.

In the March 2015 case, state bi­ol­o­gists set out from Fort De Soto to res­cue a fe­male mana­tee tan­gled in crab trap rope and monofil­a­ment fish­ing line. With help from Tampa Bay Watch vol­un­teers, they were able to toss a net over the mana­tee.

As they headed back to the boat ramp, they no­ticed the en­tan­gled right flip­per ap­peared to be “loose” in the net. Some­one used an old sweat shirt to ap­ply direct pressure to the wound.

Once they reached shore, the state bi­ol­o­gists car­ried the mana­tee to a truck used to trans­port ill man­a­tees to re­hab. But Ball climbed onto the truck and “as­sessed and treated the in­jury.”

The treat­ment: am­pu­tate the flip­per. Then Ball told them to take the an­i­mal back to the wa­ter. The re­port says it “was loaded into the cap­ture boat and re­leased” about 300 feet off­shore.

De Wit, who was part of that res­cue, op­posed re­leas­ing the mana­tee, but Ball over­ruled her.

“The dis­cus­sion in­volved dis­agree­ment about the re­lease on site ver­sus bring­ing it in for fur­ther wound care, and there was not ex­actly high-fiv­ing on my part with the re­lease,” she said, re­spond­ing to ques­tions by email. “But … in our op­er­a­tions it is very clear who is in charge once the mana­tee is in hand, and this was Lowry Park Zoo’s call.”

The sec­ond mana­tee, in 2017, had a sim­i­lar story. A crab trap’s ny­lon rope got wrapped around its flip­per. Bi­ol­o­gists caught it near Olds­mar and hauled it to shore, where Ball ex­am­ined it.

“The right flip­per was nearly sev­ered,” the re­port stated. Ball ad­min­is­tered a cream to numb the wound and am­pu­tated the flip­per. “The wound was cleaned and the mana­tee was given an­tibi­otics. The mana­tee was re­leased from the boat ramp.”

Pho­tos show both man­a­tees with protrud­ing bones, which nei­ther re­port men­tions.

The two in­ci­dents did not sit well with de Wit. In ad­di­tion to taking her con­cerns to the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, she alerted a group of mana­tee vet­eri­nar­i­ans who ad­vise the agency.

The prob­lem is that there are no set stan­dards for such care.

“Every case is dif­fer­ent, there is no such thing as a ‘nor­mal’ pro­ce­dure,” she said. But “from my ob­ser­va­tions other mana­tee vets have his­tor­i­cally brought cases with sim­i­lar con­di­tions … into re­hab for wound care, which is con­sis­tent with my own ex­pe­ri­ence of treat­ment of such wounds.”

Zoo spokes­woman Kristy Chase-Tozer did not want to re­spond di­rectly to the re­ports and pho­tos. She said Ball’s field­work on in­jured man­a­tees was sup­ported by a grant from a fund cre­ated by fines from the 2010 Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter. He’s sup­posed “to de­velop and im­ple­ment field treat-and-re­lease op­por­tu­ni­ties for en­tan­gle­ments, in­clud­ing am­pu­ta­tions.”

That will be one as­pect re­viewed by the zoo’s com­mit­tee over the next two weeks, she said. Then an at­tor­ney the zoo hired to over­see the com­mit­tee, James Ge­sualdi, will pro­duce a re­port by the fed­eral agency’s Dec. 7 dead­line. Zoo of­fi­cials said they would then make it pub­lic.

How­ever, she said, “the names of the re­view panel mem­bers will not be made pub­lic. It is the panel mem­bers’ cre­den­tials as vet­eri­nar­i­ans and their ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise in wildlife medicine that is es­sen­tial to the re­view.”

Dr. Ray Ball is sus­pended from treat­ing man­a­tees at ZooTampa.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion

ZooTampa vet­eri­nar­ian Ray Ball op­er­ates on an in­jured mana­tee’s flip­per. State records show Ball twice am­pu­tated flip­pers on in­jured man­a­tees, and then or­dered them turned loose.

Mar­tine de Wit

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