I've never met a manatee I didn't like, but from the beginning, there was something special about Moose. I still remember the day back in 1995 when we set him free. I gave his wet leathery hide a farewell pat as he lay patiently in the big sling at the stern of one of SeaWorld's rescue boats. "Take care of yourself, Moose. We'll be praying for you." All of us were hoping even more than usual that this manatee would make it out in the wild.
Releasing a manatee after it's been rehabilitated is always bittersweet. It's gratifying to return one of God's creatures to the environment he created for it. But it's tough too, because you may be putting an animal you've come to know and love in harm's way.
With a heave we lifted up one side of the sling, and Moose splashed into the green waters of the Indian River. He swam around the boat a couple of times, his whiskered face turned up to us as if to ask, "What now?" Then he was gone.
For a few weeks, we kept track of Moose through a temporary radio transmitter we'd attached to his tail. He was getting around and appeared to be adapting well to life outside SeaWorld.
Then, some six months after the release, a call came in form the Department of Environmental Protection reporting an unusually large dead manatee in a canal. It was Moose. Lacerations on his hide showed he had been struck by the propeller of a speeding powerboat.
It wasn't the first time that one of our manatees had met such a fate. But losing Moose hit me extra hard. God, you know I love my work. But what's the point of nursing these animals back to health if they're only going to die once we get them out in the wild?
My journey toward a life working with animals like Moose started when I was a kid growing up in Atlanta, Georgia. On visits to the vet with one of our dogs, I'd marvel at the way the doctor could heal a sick animal. A physician can always ask a human patient how he or she feels. Vets have to rely on intuition--a kind of communion between human and animal. There was something about that mysterious moment of connection that moved me. I got to thinking that helping animals was what God wanted me to do with my life.
After graduating from the University of Georgia Veterinary School in the late '50s, I set up shop in Orlando, Florida.
In 1972, Orlando had been chosen as the site for a new SeaWorld marine park, and they were looking for a vet. So began more than two decades of working with killer whales, dolphins, penguins, sea turtles-and of course, manatees.
Once word got out that SeaWorld rehabilitated marine wildlife, we started to get calls about injured manatees. We had a couple of small, behind-the-scenes pools where we'd work with dolphins, and we put the wounded manatees in them. It became clear that these animals desperately needed advocates--both to help the injured and to educate the public about their plight. We set up a public manatee pool. If visitors had a chance to see a manatee up close, they'd be more likely to think twice before recklessly speeding their boats through areas where manatees graze, or throwing tangled fishing line overboard.
In 1991, a call came in from some folks in the Daytona area about an orphaned manatee swimming aimlessly in a residential canal. When we got there we saw that he was just a baby--so young that his umbilical cord still trailed behind him. But he was already big; about four and a half feet long and close to 100 pounds. We christened him "Moose."
Moose settled right in at SeaWorld. He made friends and charmed all us humans too. Manatees are friendly by nature, but Moose took to people like no other I'd seen. As soon as he noticed someone approaching his pool, he'd swim over and put his pectoral flippers up on the side, squeaking until he got a scratch on the head or belly.
By the summer of 1995, Moose was nine feet long and close to 1,000 pounds. SeaWorld's policy is to release all its manatees once they are fully rehabilitated. As tough as it was to say good-bye, the time came for us to send Moose back into the wild.
Then, only six months later, our high hopes for Moose came to an abrupt, and all-too-familiar, end. Why, God? What's the point of all our work and prayers, when this is how it ends?
It would be convenient to say I got a reply right then. But as so often happens with prayers, the answer took a little more time in coming. In the wake of Moose's death, I went back to my work with the rest of the animals I treat at SeaWorld, losing myself in the tasks at hand. Deep inside, though, doubts about the worth of my work gnawed at me, a subtle but relentless pain that wouldn't go away no matter how much I tried to ignore it.