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How to Treat a Wounded Manatee

“Unfortunately, there aren’t too many manatees that don’t have a wound,” says Jon (JP) Peterson, vice president of zoological operations at …

“Unfortunately, there aren’t too many manatees that don’t have a wound,” says Jon (JP) Peterson, vice president of zoological operations at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. Peterson oversees the rescue team, a group of wildlife veterinarians and animal specialists who travel the coastal waterways of the Southeast providing emergency medicine to wild animals, including injured, cold and orphaned manatees. Boats are the most common cause of wounds: Sharp skegs and propellers scrape along the animals’ backs and flanks, leaving behind everything from minor scratches to much more severe lacerations like those Peterson calls “sucking chest wounds.”

Assess the cut and nearby tissue. “Gray is bad,” Peterson says. “You want pink.” If you see dark gray or brown, blood, pus or smell a pungent odor, there is usually infection. A manatee’s outer skin is tough, like an elephant’s hide, and prone to close up quickly. Clean, flush and scrub the wound with a sterile solution like chlorhexidine until you’ve removed the necrotic tissue (you may need to cut it out). To accelerate healing, Peterson’s team uses antibiotics, cold-laser therapy and stem cells, as well as raw, unpasteurized honey. “Use a tongue depressor and pack the honey into the wound,” Peterson says. With its sticky, antibacterial properties, honey stays put, even underwater.

Don’t underestimate the strength of these animals. “They’re one ball of muscle,” Peterson says. Dolphins and whales make less challenging patients. Release healed manatees back into the wild. Of course, unless you’re trained and permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, you should not handle manatees at all. Mistreating them is illegal and can result in a fine and prison time. In 1967, only a few hundred manatees remained in Florida when they were listed among the first class of endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Researchers now estimate the population at 6,300, most with crisscrossing bright white scars across their bodies. In fact, scarring is so prevalent that scientists use scar patterns to identify individual manatees during aerial surveys. “You can look down from an airplane and see, ‘Oh, look, there’s so-and-so,’” Peterson says.

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