Jacksonville Zoo accepts first 2 manatees to critical care center

Cassie, Buckeye will be monitored in Jacksonville until ready for release

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – America’s newest Manatee Critical Care Center, housed at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, received two young sea cows from SeaWorld Orlando on Wednesday.

Both manatees require a little more time in human care before Florida Fish and Wildlife officials deem them ready for release later this year.

Cassie and Buckeye, orphaned in August and September of 2015, respectively, are the first manatees to be brought to the Jacksonville Zoo's Manatee Critical Care Center.

PHOTOS: Manatees arrive at Jacksonville Zoo

Female Cassie and male Buckeye were both rescued by members of FWC and the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ Marine Mammal Response Team. Both were transported to SeaWorld Orlando where they received round-the-clock care and bottle feeding.

Cassie weighed only 66 pounds at time of rescue. Now at 775 pounds, Cassie is thriving, zoo officials said. Buckeye was a mere 63 pounds when he was rescued, and now weighs 625 pounds. Fully grown, the animals can reach nearly a ton.

SeaWorld needed more space to take care of other manatees, so the Jacksonville Zoo offered it's new facility to house Cassie and Buckeye.

"So we help take care of some of their burden by taking over these guys, feeding them up some more,” Jacksonville Zoo veterinary nurse Dewey Maddox said.

The two manatees will remain in Jacksonville under the watchful eye of the zoo’s animal health specialists, for critical weight gain and continued monitoring until they are determined to be ready to be released.

When manatees migrate to the springs this winter, Cassie and Buckeye will be released to join the herd.

The zoo’s Manatee Critical Care Center facility was completed earlier this year. The center features two large tanks, one outfitted with a lift-floor for safer, more effective medical treatment, and the other has a window for guest viewing. 

“Welcoming Cassie and Buckeye to our center is a huge, exciting milestone in Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ history of manatee conservation,” said Craig Miller, the zoo’s curator of mammals, who also serves as chair of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership, and leader of the zoo’s Marine Mammal Response Team. “Our Critical Care Center reaffirms our commitment to manatees, giving us the capability to rescue, rehabilitate and return manatees to the wild.”

Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ Manatee Critical Care Center is one of only four such facilities in Florida. The other centers are located in Orlando, Tampa and Miami. Having one locally means that animals rescued in north Florida, Georgia, and even South Carolina waters can receive quicker care, recover faster and be returned to their home waters without incurring excessive transport time, zoo officials said.

"It's a shorter trip for manatees now that we have the northeast covered and just to be on that level is so exciting,” Miller said.

Though recently downlisted from endangered to threatened status, manatees are still federally protected and relatively rare. They face constant dangers from boat strikes, drowning from entanglement, illness from pollution, and cold stress.