North Florida Ecological Services Office
Southeast Region

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the Service’s Position on the
Release of Naïve (Long-term & Captive Born) Manatees Back into the Wild

Q:  What steps are taken prior to releasing naïve manatees back into the wild?

A:  Several steps are taken in the release of captive manatees: (1) pre-release conditioning is completed to ensure the animal is properly prepared for release, and includes exposure to the type of water the animal will be released in and exposure to wild vegetation, as well as a complete hands off approach to the animals to ensure there is not an affinity to humans; (2) a release and monitoring plan is developed prior to release; and (3) post-release monitoring is conducted for at least one year, along with a minimum of one medical evaluation in order to determine success and adaptation to the wild.   

Q: What happens if a released animal fails to adapt to the wild?

A:  If the welfare of a released animal is in question, a review panel of Rescue/Rehab partners is presented with the information for discussion and identification of next steps.  If deemed necessary, an animal may be captured for a health assessment to evaluate its medical condition, or it may be pulled back into captivity for additional rehabilitation.  If an animal is taken back into captivity it will continue rehabilitation until it is medically cleared and an appropriate time has been identified for release into the wild.   Our experience has shown some naïve animals adapt quickly to life in the wild, while other may need a couple of attempts before they are considered a success. 

Q:  Have Rescue/Rehab Program partners expressed concerns about releasing naïve animals?

A:  Yes.   Rescue/Rehab Program partners, as well as others, have expressed concerns: (1) regarding the amount of time an animal has spent in captivity and its subsequent ability to thrive in the wild; (2) over the costs associated with release and monitoring an animal; (3) about the location of where naïve animals should be released; and (4) whether or not captive animals provide greater overall benefit to manatee recovery though education/outreach.

Q:  What has been done to address these concerns?

A:  The Service and its Rescue/Rehab partners recently revised the program’s release guidelines to outline specific pre-release requirements all naïve animals should undergo prior to release.  Additionally the guidelines require all naïve animals be equipped with telemetry equipment and monitored for at least 12-months following release. 

Program costs are always an issue; especially during these tough economic times.  However, the Service and its Rescue/Rehab Program partners remain committed to finding the resources needed to give each released animal its best shot at survival in the wild.   

Proposed releases undergo an extensive evaluation by the Service in coordination with its Rescue/Rehab partners to ensure the program is making the best decision regarding the release of its naïve animals; including identifying suitable release locations.

The Rescue/Rehab Program is and will continue to be an active program into the foreseeable future.  To date, program partner facilities have always had an animal in-house undergoing rehab and available for education and outreach purposes.  In the past 10-years, the Rescue/Rehab Program has never had less than 45 manatees in captivity.

Q:  Are these naïve captives exposed to any greater risks than those already in the wild?

A:  No.  It is believed that the naïve manatees are not exposed to additional risks above those that wild animals wouldn’t normally encounter.

Q:  What determines success or failure of a released naïve manatee?

A:  Generally, an animal is considered a success when it is believed to have adapted to life in the wild.  Adaptation and ultimate success involves several factors including an animals’ ability to forage and find fresh water (not become dehydrated) on its own; this can be documented through observation in the wild and also be evaluated through a health exam by an experienced manatee veterinarian.  In addition, an animal should exhibit wild animal behaviors such as traveling, socializing with other manatees, and even participating in a mating herd; although this latter not a criterion, as it is difficult to observe.  Finally, an animal must find a warm water source when water temperatures drop in the colder months of the year; this is a critical step to the survival of an animal. 

Failures are those animals that have not been observed eating or drinking, in which case they would typically not receive a “passing” health assessment from an experienced manatee veterinarian.  In addition, other actions that would contribute to a failure designation include following boats, seeking out human interaction above that seen in other manatees in the wild, not utilizing a range of habitat by staying in one area, not socializing, and/or not finding warm water when weather conditions and water temperatures turned cold.  Animals identified as failures are generally brought back into captivity for preparation for “another try.”  The program has yet to designate an animal to life in captivity based on its inability to adapt to the wild; again, some manatees may adapt quickly, while others may require a couple of releases before they “get it.”

Q:  What are the results of those manatees that have been in captivity for greater than 10 years once they were released?

A:  Since the program revised its release protocols and monitoring plan (2002) the Rescue/Rehab Program has released seven animals that have been in captivity for greater than 10 years, of these four were captive born.  Three releases (Stormy, Gene, and Dundee), two of which were captive born, were all designated successful. 

The remaining four animals, two of which were captive born, are categorized as incomplete.  Three of the “incomplete” animals are designated as such due to the fact that they lost their satellite tag during the first year of monitoring.  Thus, their current location and biological status is unknown.  If the animals are sighted in the future we will change their status to the appropriate outcome category once health condition is evaluated.  The remaining “incomplete” manatee died after five months in the wild.  As the cause of death could not be determined, she was designated as an incomplete because we have no evidence that her death was due to maladaptation in the wild.   It is important to note that all the animals that died had been exhibiting otherwise appropriate wild behavior patterns (e.g., feeding, socializing, traveling, drinking, participating in mating herds) up to the time of death.

Service Position Statement

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Last updated: June 21, 2016