Manatee improving at zoo critical care center

Manatee improving at zoo critical care center
Miller the manatee (Photo by Kay Ellen Gilmour)

Thanks to the quick thinking of several St. Nicholas neighbors, who helped save him from a chilly death in the mud of Millers Creek in March, Miller the manatee, is slowly gaining weight at the new Manatee Critical Care Center at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

Named for the creek where he nearly met his Maker, Miller has gained 48 pounds in the first two weeks of June, said J.J. Vitale, a St. Nicholas resident and spokesman for the Jacksonville Zoo. When the geriatric manatee, who zoo officials estimate may be at least 40 years old, arrived at the zoo’s new critical care center, Zoo Veterinarian Dr. Yousuf Jafarey immediately began treatment because it was apparent to everyone that Miller was not in good shape, she said.

Miller the manatee gets a check-up at the Jacksonville Zoo’s Manatee Critical Care Center. (Photo by Kay Ellen Gilmour)

“While the bloodwork was looking stable, the manatee was listless and suffering from cold stress. His respiration was rapid and not even. Zoo animal health staff, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) professionals with two decades of manatee experience and Sea to Shore Alliance staff were concerned,” she said.

Dr. Jafarey’s physical exam indicated Miller had been losing weight and had suffered severe damage to his tail in the past. For nearly three months he did not show improvement, requiring zoo staff, Dr. Jafarey and his colleague Dr. Meredith Persky, as well as Dr. Ray Ball, a consulting veterinarian from Lowry Park Zoo, to continue aggressive treatment and care, Vitale said, noting zoo staff have no plans to release him back into the St. Johns River near the Main Street Bridge any time soon. 

Miller’s recent 48-pound weight gain is good news, and he remains in “stable” condition, showing “no signs of illness,” said Kay Ellen Gilmour, a retired cardiologist who lives in St. Nicholas.

“He eats well now and has no obvious gastrointestinal problems. The only thing that continues to argue against his release is his persistent sluggishness, perhaps a sign of old ages and maybe even some arthritis,” she said in a Facebook post, quoting information she received from Craig Miller, curator of mammals at the zoo.

On June 26, the University of Florida sent its expert manatee veterinarian and some vet students to do an in-depth evaluation on Miller, said Gilmour, noting Ball will also return to collaborate with the consultation.

The hefty 1,100-pound gentle giant was rescued during a chilly evening in March by officials from the FWC, Sea to Shore Alliance, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department after he was observed by Millers Creek resident Kathy Davis to be stranded in the mud at low tide in Millers Creek. “I was lucky enough to look out my second-floor bedroom window and see him, because if I hadn’t, he’d be dead,” Davis said.

Miller the manatee receives a lot of attention during his check-ups at the Jacksonville Zoo’s Manatee Critical Care Center. (Photo by Kay Ellen Gilmour)

Miller the manatee receives a lot of attention during his check-ups at the Jacksonville Zoo’s Manatee Critical Care Center. (Photo by Kay Ellen Gilmour)

Unsure of what to do, Davis quickly ran to next door to consult with her neighbors, Lois Gray and Gilmour, who also have a ring-side home on the creek. While Gray alerted FWC officials about the situation, Davis’s husband Leo and son, T.J. Tobin, made their way out to the stranded mammal, which was having a tough time lifting its head to breathe.

“Our neighbor, Kathy Davis, looked out her second-story bedroom window and saw him. He was half still submerged, but he couldn’t get off the mud in the creek without more water, and there wasn’t any because the tide had gone out,” Gray recalled. “He was so weak. He could not get his head out of the water. T.J. saved his life by lifting his head, so he could breathe.”

FWC reached out to the veterinarians at the Zoo’s new Manatee Critical Care Center, a $2.1 million facility that was funded by private individuals and a $500,000 grant from the State of Florida, according to the center’s website. The center provides temporary housing and care for sick or injured manatees until they are healthy enough to be returned to the area where they were found.

By the time help arrived it was dark, and Leo Davis and Tobin had returned to shore. As many as 30 St. Nicholas residents, including Vitale’s husband and children, came out to watch and support the rescuers, said Vitale.

Spotlights were set up and two members from the FWC, Sea to Shore Alliance, and the zoo, including Vitale, who also serves on the zoo’s Marine Mammal Response Team, waded waist-deep in mud to reach the stranded manatee. Meanwhile, members of Jacksonville Fire and Rescue assisted from shore, sending out ropes, while the muddy six planted a stretcher under the landlocked animal.

Leo Davis mans the canoe while his stepson, T.J. Tobin, assists Miller the manatee in the mud of Millers Creek. (Photo by Kay Ellen Gilmour)

Leo Davis mans the canoe while his stepson, T.J. Tobin, assists Miller the manatee in the mud of Millers Creek. (Photo by Kay Ellen Gilmour)

“He was in rough shape and lethargic,” said Vitale. “We got the stretcher underneath him, with ropes underneath it, and that’s when Jax Fire and Rescue pulled him out of the mud.

It took eight members of the fire and rescue team to transport Miller up the bank to an FWC truck, which was waiting on Mayfair Road, said Vitale. “The St. Nicholas neighbors were wonderful. They offered us water and the ability to use their electrical outlets to plug in our lights,” she said.

Soon after Miller arrived at the center, Craig Miller invited Gray, Gilmour, and the Davises to visit while Dr. Ball conducted an examination.

“He wasn’t progressing,” said Gray. “Kathy, Leo, Kay, and I were able to watch. They did an ultrasound, an EKG, blood tests, and X-rays on his teeth, jaw and lungs. He was to the point where one of the keepers had to go into the pool and almost hand feed him,” she continued. “The vets were very nice to us and let us watch all the proceedings. Kay was disappointed they didn’t show her the EKG strip. She wanted to see it.

“We are moved by the wonderful care and the kind way the people at the center treat the animals,” Gray continued. “Even if Miller doesn’t make it, we know we got him to the right place where he has the best possible chance to survive. To be able to participate in saving a huge creature like that, it was almost spiritual,” she said.

T.J. Tobin helps Miller the manatee to remain wet and breathe while waiting for help to arrive. (Photo by Kay Ellen Gilmour)

T.J. Tobin helps Miller the manatee to remain wet and breathe while waiting for help to arrive. (Photo by Kay Ellen Gilmour)

Kathy Davis agreed. “The zoo treated us like we were VIPs. They let us go through the back entrance to get to where the manatees were.”

Davis said being able to see manatees like Miller near her home is one of the reasons she loves living in St. Nicholas. “For living in the city, we have so many animals in our neighborhood that are amazing. There has been an otter on our dock, and we have a pair of foxes. Although we live in the city it’s like we’re out in the woods, too,” she said.

Vitale also adores her neighborhood. “I love our neighborhood, and the people in it are a big reason,” she said. “Seeing the sense of the community and the people offering everything from towels to water to help Miller was really terrific. While I want every animal that comes in to the center to thrive, but I feel a closer tie to Miller because he was from my backyard, and I participated in his rescue. He’s had a tougher recovery process, so you just have to route for him.”

If you spot an injured or sick manatee don’t take matters into your own hands, said Vitale. Call the FWC hotline at 1(888) 404-3922.


By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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