TAMPA, Fla. — To spend some time with Tiffany Burns is to truly fall in love with one of the most docile creatures on the planet. Burns is the director of conservation research at ZooTampa and spends most of her time caring for manatees, a species whose existence is now being threatened because of climate change.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Tiffany and her colleagues were spending their lunch hours bottle feeding four manatees that had been orphaned by their moms. Her eventual hope is to get these mammals to weigh at least 600 pounds so they can then be released back into the waters off the Florida coast.
"We’re like a hospital where every patient is treated uniquely," she said.
But these manatees and others everywhere are facing a very uncertain future out in the wild. As ocean waters warm because of climate change, the grass and seaweed these creatures eat are dying off. Because of that, many manatees are starving to death.
"What we’re seeing is thinner body conditions; animals not getting enough nutrients to survive," Burns added.
The die-off of manatees this year alone is unprecedented since the start of October researchers have documented at least 1,000 deaths, that’s more than any other year on record.
Jamie Woodley with Tampa Electric is also watching what's happening closely. Her company manages the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, Florida. People from all over the world come here to see manatees up close.
"This facility allows people to see them in the wild," she said.
A nearby power plant pumps warm water into an adjacent canal, basically creating a hot tub for these docile creatures. Given how much danger the species is in, people like Jamie Woodley see the Manatee Viewing Center as a chance to educate the public.
It’s not just climate-changing killing manatees, but also boat strikes.
"You want your kids to grow up and see the animals you saw, and every animal as a purpose," she said.
Back at ZooTampa, Tiffany Burns and her colleagues are calling on the federal government to add manatees back to the endangered species list. The hope is that added protection might save the remaining number of manatees left.
"Unfortunately, manatees aren’t alone. They face their own challenges, but there are a lot of species out there just like that facing their own challenges."