Having agreed to join the Manatee Stranding Network, set up by Coastal Zone Management, l thought the chance of being called upon was remote. I was wrong.
After the rush to get to Belize City, the first time l saw Hercules, all that was visible was a dark grey elephant-like skin with sparse hairs floating at the surface of the holding tank. After a moment two nostrils appeared and Hercules, the three week-old Manatee, raised his tiny head for a breath. As he took his, I lost mine. Here was the opportunity to help one of the most endangered marine creatures on the planet.
Hercules had been abandoned by his mother near Belize City and rescued by Coastal Zone Management on April 26th. Our job was to feed him and ensure his health for seven days, prior to his departure to Mexico, where they have a rehabilitation facility for such creatures.
His daily routine included three hour-long feedings of soy milk powder, water and dextrose. We also had to have someone with him every minute so that we could count his breaths to ensure he was not under stress and all was normal. This vigil was carried out by willing volunteers (soon to be weary volunteers) who did a sterling job counting every single breath 24 hours a day for seven days.
Each day the Fire Department would arrive to pump fresh lagoon water into adjoining tanks so that we could move him from tank to tank to prevent any infection from stale water. The three hour feeding times were an energetic experience. First, we would enter the water after showering to remove all chemicals, such as antiperspirant, and then gently restrain him with a sling held by two people in wetsuits. We then carefully lifted this 85 pound baby out of the water and held him in a bear hug from behind. One would then sit on a upside down bucket whilst the other person bottle fed him. At times, whilst l was holding him, he would drop off to sleep half way through his bottle, just like a human baby, and would need a gentle nudge to remind him to suck. To start, he would suck on my fingers and get the idea before he started on the bottle. Throughout this drama, a strict code was enforced which was total silence, absolute cleanliness and a hospital-like atmosphere. Despite temptation, no talking or calling to him was allowed. It is important in such situations that the artificially raised calf (a wild animal that must be returned) not be allowed to become attached or influenced by human behaviour and sounds.
The most remarkable thing about Manatees are their lips, which are covered with tactile hairs covering extremely prehensile lips which move like two fingers in a glove. The lips felt and manipulated the bottle teat with perfect precision, directing it into his mouth for each feed. On a few occasions, we took him from the water and placed him on a foam mattress and took samples of blood and faeces for analysis. To our great relief, these were all normal. We had a fit and healthy baby Manatee on our hands - a rare and totally incredible experience.
On the seventh day, our sandfly and mosquito-bitten team prepared Hercules for his long journey. He was transported in a padded sling in the back of an air conditioned truck. After eight exhausting hours, Hercules arrived at Xcaret for his extended vacation, which will be for some two years. He will have to be bottle fed for this entire time. The good news is that he will be living with another Manatee calf already there recovering from severe machete wounds caused by cruel and gutless hunters. They were very pleased to see each other having both lost their parents.
In two years time, when Hercules is an adult male, he will be returned to Belize and released back into the wild. Thank goodness that Belize has full legal protection of these incredible animals, although the latest official count stated that there were only 400 manatees left in Belize. In evolutionary terms, this number is a blink of the eye - and if we don't all do our best to protect them, and their habitat, there will only be photographs left to show our children.
I was honored to be asked to assist Coastal Zone Management in the rehabilitation of Hercules, and in terms of strandings, hope it is a long time before we are called upon again.
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