Striving for Animal Excellence: Florida Manatees

Posted November 26, 2018 by David Orban

At the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, we’re continuing our pursuit towards optimal animal welfare, or what we like to call Animal Excellence. To us, this means that all animals in our care 1) are healthy and have well-balanced diets, 2) have environments that promote species-specific behavior and meet their social needs, 3) have the ability to adapt to novel experiences, 4) develop appropriate relationships with their care staff, and 5) have the opportunity for meaningful choice and control throughout their lives. Over the last year, Cincinnati Zoo staff have developed an Animal Excellence Strategic Plan to help guide our practices related to animal care and welfare to be more innovative, evidence-based, and progressive.

One such action within this strategic plan was implementation of Animal Excellence Assessments. This process allows us to take a “deep dive” into the experience of the animals that live here and assess the components of their experience holistically. In doing so, we can identify which components of their experience could be enhanced, in essence from “good” to “great” to “Excellent.” We always strive to push the needle forward when it comes to animal welfare, and this can best be done by learning more about our animals.

Hyacinth snack!

Recently, an Animal Excellence Assessment was conducted for our four Florida Manatees: Daphne, Matthew, Miles, and Pippen. Our team of dedicated manatee care staff met with scientists, veterinarians, curators, and zoo administrators to discuss the ins and outs of the manatees’ experience, including their current health and nutrition, physical and sensory environment, social experiences, behaviors, and emotional states. We also discussed how animal care practices contribute to the manatees’ experience. Together, we developed a great sense of where our manatees experienced Excellence and where a few enhancements could be made.

In preparation for some of our manatees to move to Florida to be released back into the wild (as soon as Fall 2019), we recognized that we wanted to better prepare them for foraging in natural habitats. Currently, our manatees are fed in the behind-the-scenes feeding pool. This practice promotes the notion of a “safe space” for our manatees, which makes providing veterinary care such as monthly weighing or biannual blood draws safe and stress-free. (This is also why visitors sometimes won’t see the manatees in their main habitat.) A majority of the diet floats to the surface, but starting next summer, the animal care team will design new feeding apparatuses that will affix some of the diet to the floor and walls of the behind-the-scenes feeding pool. This will diversify the foraging opportunities and will more closely mimic natural foraging behaviors.

One other area that we also hope to focus on is expanding the volunteer SCUBA diver team. This group of dedicated volunteers assists our manatee care staff in cleaning the manatee habitat, which enhances water quality and overall experience for our manatees. However, since the manatee habitat is cleaned daily, we’re always in need of more dive-certified volunteers! If interested, please check out the Zoo’s volunteer page.

Manatee Habitat Space Usage – May 2018

Our team also decided to continue conducting routine behavior observations on our manatees. Since our manatees arrived at the Zoo, animal care and science staff have been tracking the behaviors and social interactions of each manatee. In bringing in a new group of young manatees, our team wanted to make sure that they adapted well to their new home and to each other. From this daily monitoring, we learned that the manatees demonstrated a normal range of behaviors, are bonded to each other, engage with a variety of features in their environment, and utilize all spaces in their main habitat. This information helps support the conclusions found within the Animal Excellence Assessment – our manatees are currently thriving here at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and are being prepared appropriately for life back in the wild!

All Florida manatees in human care are managed by the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP). With the goal to rescue, rehabilitate, and release manatees back into the wild, the MRP needs partnering institutions, like the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, to contribute their expertise and their passion for caring for manatees. Our Manatee Springs team is proud of the work they do to care for these manatees and promote an experience of Animal Excellence.

To learn more about the MRP, check out the program’s website or follow the program on Facebook.