LaToshia Read darts down the aquarium stairs in a blue-and-black wetsuit, toting behind her fellow manatee research trainer Kim Dziuk and two Mote Marine Aquarium interns. Each carries a bucket of manatee treats — beets, carrots and apples — that, along with a whistle, aid in training manatees Hugh and Buffett for various skills, exercises and research.
“It’s a really big wow-factor when we explain what we do,” Read says. “We don’t have the typical nine-to-five office job, and we’re outside a lot, interacting with interesting animals.”
Today, the manatees will continue their stretcher training. Should Hugh and Buffett be released in the future, stress on the trainers and the animals will be greatly reduced if the manatees voluntarily swim into the stretcher.
“We’re trying to get weights on Hugh and Buffett so that we can bring in a crane to lift them,” Read said.
“We would like it to be voluntary, so they swim in when we signal and sit in the stretcher.”
Read sets her treat bucket on the side of the tank and settles down into the water while Dziuk attaches several straps to the stretcher that will hold it in place.
Read and Dziuk have also been practicing drawing blood and collecting urine with Hugh and Buffett. The team of two provides the manatees with more advanced training than manatees receive at any other facility in the world. Not only does the training allow the manatees to receive veterinary care with less stress, but the manatees also participate in research projects — such as sensory testing determined by particle movement — that have led to multiple discoveries about how they sense their underwater world.
“We’re able to work with an endangered species in a research setting like Mote, which is known for the manatee work done here,” Dziuk said. “Everything here is groundbreaking. You get to be involved, feel like you’re making a footprint and helping out.”
Standing between the stretcher and tank wall, Read gives Hugh the signal “move forward” using a bridge (whistle). Slowly, the sea cow inches toward his trainer, the hairs on his body sticking above the water.
“A lot of people associate slow-moving with slow,” Dziuk said. “What we do, the research we conduct and the complex steps, the manatees definitely pick it up. It seems like they remember things well. Training and research are hard to do when it’s for profit. We’re so lucky to be able to have the focus with research.”
Manatee training also involves testing the tank’s water quality, temperature and chlorine levels. Trainers are also responsible for checking the pressure of the system and prepping food each evening.
“My favorite part is working with them,” Read said. “I like that we get to work one-on-one with the manatees and get to know each individual … (we) get to build relationships in that sense.”