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Margaret Deefholts

Her name is Iona, and I've been eager to see her since arriving in Tampa Bay, Florida. By conventional standards, she's no raving beauty, but that's unimportant. She moves towards me slowly and majestically. We exchange glances. Her eyes are soft and shy, almost puppy-like. She crinkles her snub nose and I smile at her, half expecting her to beam back at me. Instead she turns away and nibbles on her lunch of Romaine lettuce.

Iona is a West Indian Manatee, one of a select species of gentle and engaging mammalian creatures that live and play in Florida's coastal waters. As I stand in front of the enormous glass tank at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, I catch a glimpse of the scarred gash in her flesh that had brought her to Tampa's Lowry Park Manatee Rehabilitation Centre several months earlier. She'd been gored by a passing speedboat, (not an unusual occurrence among the manatee population) and was in critical condition. One lung had collapsed, preventing her from submerging below water, and she was a mere manatee-whisker away from sinking into the oblivion of the great hereafter.

At Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo's Manatee Hospital, a heavy-duty crane moved her swiftly into the emergency operating theatre and medics fought to stabilise her breathing. They then discovered there were two lives at stake. Iona was heavily pregnant. The odds of survival were slim, but she and her unborn baby were now as precious (and fragile) as a pair of Ming vases. Over the weeks that followed, Iona was monitored more closely than an astronaut, and the entire staff held their breath when she went into labour. A video camera was set up to film the birthing; today, a small group of us watch the tape intently as her baby, Lowry, emerges into the world and, flippers his way to the surface of the tank to take his first breath. The equivalent of a newborn's first cry!

If I am guilty of anthropomorphizing Iona, I'm in good company. Manatee tales, folklore and legends abound in cultures across the globe. Some are romantic, others border on the supernatural. The Indians of Nicaragua, for example, endowed the manatee with mystical powers and developed a complexity of rituals around the whole business of hunting and feasting on their meat.

However, perhaps the most widespread belief, particularly among old-time mariners, was that manatees were siren-like mermaids of mythological origin. Which begs the question of whether the ships' crews were knocking back substantial quantities of over-proof rum, or had been away from women for an awfully long time. Manatees are charming enough, but at an average weight of 1,000 pounds of barrel-like flesh, and a fan-like tail fin, they can hardly be described as alluring. Like dugongs, a similar looking mammal, they are placid sea cows, without any trace of flirtatious nymphomania!

Their easy-going disposition has, in fact, worked against them. Rachel Nelson, manager at the Zoo says, "The zoo receives rescued animals for a great variety of reasons, the most common being: boat strikes, motor boat blades, red tide, orphans, cold stress and entanglement in fishing lines or crab traps."

As a result of this, only a scant 2,200 West Indian Manatee still exist in the wild along Florida's coastal waters. Classified as an endangered species, they are protected under Florida state legislation, and institutions such as Save the Manatee Club are making strenuous efforts to rouse public concern to the fact that these gentle mammals are now teetering on the knife-edge of extinction.

The manatees currently in residence at Tampa's Lowry Park Manatee Rehabilitation Centre, are in good hands. With the exception of one, (who serves as an educational exhibit) the rest will one day be strong enough to be released into their natural environment. Whether they will survive the perils of boaters who rip and roar their way around the Florida coastline, is another matter.

Note: As an update to this story, Iona survived by sheer determination for 9 months, long enough to nurse Lowry into healthy independence before succumbing to her wound. Lowry was eventually released into the waters of Tampa Bay.

© Margaret Deefholts

A few facts:

Since the Rehabilitation Centre opened in 1991, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo has treated 160 manatees with the goal of rehabilitating and releasing each one back into its native waters. At present (March 2006), the zoo has a patient load of 11 manatees including two young orphans that are being hand reared. On average, it costs approximately $300 to feed one adult manatee for one day.

Serving more than 930,000 visitors in the fiscal year ended September 30, 2005, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo (named the #1 family-friendly zoo in America by Child magazine) is a non-profit cultural organization committed to excellence in education, conservation and research.

Getting There:

Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo
1101 W. Sligh Avenue
(One mile west of I-275 - exit 48)
Tampa Florida 33604
Ph: 1-813-935-8552
Open daily (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 9.30 am to 5.00 pm. Visit their website at: for further information on directions, ticket admission prices, special events and wild-life show timings.

photos are courtesy Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo

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