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