ZooTampa: Manatees are starving in Florida, but you shouldn’t feed them in the wild

After the number of Florida manatee deaths skyrocketed this year – mostly due to starvation -- many may be tempted to take matters into their own hands by feeding lettuce to the gentle giants out in the wild -- but experts advise against it.

In fact, wildlife officials said it would likely worsen a manatee’s condition.

"A lot of people want to do that and the problem is now we have animals that are becoming dependent on feeding," said Dr.Cynthia Stringfield, ZooTampa’s senior vice president of animal health, conservation, and education. "If there isn’t a feeding program, somebody just tossing lettuce in the water occasionally is not going to help. In fact, it can really hurt a starving manatee."

She told FOX 13 that animal hospitals taking in starving animals usually have a feeding program in place.

"You can’t feed them a lot of romaine all at once at the very beginning," Dr. Stringfield explained. "There’s a very scientific way of certain nutrients and getting them back to a place where we can start feeding them normally. As much as it would make us feel better to start throwing romaine in the water, it wouldn’t help the manatees, unfortunately."

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Instead, she suggested calling Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission if you see a distressed manatee. The hotline is: 1-888-404-3922. Then, wildlife experts can evaluate what is best for the animal.

Between Jan. 1 and July 2, at least 841 manatees have died. Basically, the first six months of this year tops the previous record of 830 manatee deaths that were recorded in all of 2013. 

FWC officials said unprecedented manatee deaths are happening because of seagrass loss and starvation. They said most of the manatees starved to death in the winter while migrating through the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast, where algae in the estuary have led to seagrass loss.

Because of this, the outlook for the rest of the year is not promising, Dr. Stringfield says.

"There’s a lot of research that’s being done right now and discussions of what the plan is going to be for next winter because if this is going to happen again we need to have a plan in place," she said. "So, FWC is working really hard on that right now."