Rehabilitated Manatees Return to Orlando & Other Animal Rehabilitation Efforts in Central Florida

By Yasmene Warren

This month, eight manatees were flown more than 1,000 miles from Ohio zoos back to their temporary Florida homes to complete their rehabilitation journey.

three manatees in the water

For more than two years, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, ZooTampa at Lowry Park and SeaWorld Orlando have been tirelessly working together to rehabilitate eight orphan manatees.

“Manatees are a critical part of our aquatic ecosystems, and we've been honored to be involved in their rescue, rehabilitation, and return for 47 years, working alongside our partners, including the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership, to help preserve these beloved Florida icons."

Dr. Joseph Gaspard, vice president of Zoological Operations at SeaWorld Orlando.

"We have the capacity to care for up to 60 manatees in need at a time in our critical care facility in Orlando, which is one of only a few in the U.S. for the treatment of marine animals. A close collaboration among the zoological community, where we transfer stable rehabilitating animals between facilities, is important to free up critical care space and ensure that together we save as many manatees as we can," he said.


people in a manatee enclosure with water and blue lift with manatee

History of Manatee Rehabilitation

These orphaned manatees have quite the traveling track record. Four were previously being taken care of at SeaWorld and moved to the Columbus Zoo in January 2022. One moved from Miami Seaquarium in 2020 to Columbus Zoo as well. Now, all five manatees have been transferred to SeaWorld to finish up their rehabilitation journey.

manatee in an enclosure with water and two people

Rescued as baby calves in the spring and summer of 2021, three manatees received intensive care and bottle feeding for 18 months at ZooTampa before being moved to Cincinnati Zoo’s Manatee Springs for rehabilitation. Now, those calves have returned home to ZooTampa and will be cared for until they’re able to be released into Crystal River in February.

“These transfers are extremely important as it allows us to make room to care for critically injured, ill and orphaned manatees,” said Tiffany Burns, senior director of animal programs. “We are grateful to our partners in Ohio for providing secondary rehabilitation. It’s an incredible team effort and we are excited about the manatees’ return to Florida waters early next year.”


people in blue shirts loading manatee safely onto a truck

The Process of Manatee Transportation

In order to be properly transported back to Florida, the manatees were put in custom-built, state-of-the art containers. A Cincinnati Zoo staff and a Columbus Zoo Animal Care curator accompanied the manatees to monitor their conditions throughout the flight.

plane with an open door and manatee container

During their travel, the manatees remained comfortable and cozy as they rested on a bed of foam and were covered in wool and space blankets to ensure they maintained a healthy body temperature.

As manatees are marine animals, it’s important for their skin to stay hydrated. Care specialists made sure to mist their bodies with water beneath their blankets throughout the flight to keep their bodies moist.

“Moving manatees is an extremely complex process that involves significant planning and logistics to ensure that each specific need is met throughout the journey,” said Cain Moodie, SVP Network Operations, DHL Express Americas. “We are thrilled to play a key role in this initiative to support endangered manatees in the wild, leveraging our team’s expertise to ensure each animal is transported as quickly and safely as possible.”

Other Animal Rehabilitation Around Orlando

Although well known for its zoo and animal rehabilitation, SeaWorld isn’t the only place in Orlando that rehabilitates wildlife.

One notable animal rehabilitation center in “the city beautiful” is Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit that rescues, raises, and rehabilitates and releases injured or orphaned species native to Florida.

lemur eating a peach

Image by Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge

You can help this organization’s cause by becoming a volunteer, helping them meet their financial goals, or donating items toward their wish list. If you really want to get personal, you can sponsor a rescue animal of your own!

There’s also Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando, a shelter that accepts dog and cat rescues. For larger animals in need of care, they can be helped at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Wild injured or orphaned birds can be taken to Audubon Center for Birds of Prey to be helped.

Cat laying down on top of its limbs and looking at camera

Image by Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando

If you ever come across an animal in need of help in Orlando, you can rest assured that there are an ample amount of wonderful resources around town that can ensure their safety and preserve their lives!

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