Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo helps save red tide manatees - WFLA News Channel 8

Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo helps save red tide manatees

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TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -

A red tide bloom stretching from Sarasota to Ft. Myers has killed off a record number of manatees this year. So far, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has recorded 174 manatee deaths. That beats the previous record of 151 deaths set back in 1996 in just the first three months of this year.

"It's a high number and we're just monitoring the situation and trying to rescue as many as we can," said FWC spokesperson Kevin Baxter.

That's where the Manatee Hospital at the Lowry Park Zoo comes in. The hospital has taken in 12 red tide manatees, and the staff says they have room for more.

"They live and they survive. So we know if the rescue teams can get those animals in to us, that they will make it and we will be able to release them again someday," said Virginia Edmonds, Animal Care Manager at the Lowry Park Zoo.

All of the animals the zoo has saved came from Lee County. Many manatees congregate in southwest Florida during the winter months because of the warm waters. Edmonds said the red tide toxin gets embedded on the sea grass that manatees eat.

Saving the manatees is labor intensive. The toxin released by the red tide algae paralyzes manatees, so they can drown in just a few inches of water. Staff members at Lowry Park put life vests on manatees, and in some cases, hold their heads above water. That way they can breathe until the toxin wears off.

"We put a life jacket on them, and we use a noodle-- just your regular old pool noodle," Edmonds said. "Just something to keep their head buoyant."

Three of the manatees are healthy enough to be transferred to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park on Thursday. They won't be released back into the wild just yet. Experts must decide if it's best to wait until the red tide dissipates because the manatees might try to swim home, and then be exposed again.

Lowry Park Zoo said it hopes to help rescue more manatees until this red tide bloom is over. FWC isn't sure why this bloom has lasted so long. Typically, the algae only blooms for a few months in the spring. This red tide bloom started last September, and hasn't died down yet.

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