Behind the Scenes banner
Manatee swimming with school of fish

A manatee in the wild.

Popularly known as “sea cows,” most people don’t realize manatees aren’t related to cows, but in fact a large aquatic cousin of the elephant! Weighing up to 1,330 pounds, these gentle giants come to be as large as they are by feasting voraciously on water grasses, weeds and algae, eating up to a tenth of their own weight every day!

Manatees are found primarily in the warm waters of shallow rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal waters. Three species of manatee are distinguished by geographical location—the Amazonian manatee inhabits the Amazon River and the African manatee swims along the west coast and rivers of Africa. We are most familiar with the West Indian manatee, which ranges along the central Atlantic coast, from the Carolinas to Texas and as far south as Brazil. Primarily, the warm waters of Florida are home.

Throughout the last century, populations have declined due to hunting, harassment from humans, watercraft collisions and habitat loss. Manatees are classified as “threatened,” but there’s a lot you can do to help! When boating, be sure to obey all speed signs and dispose of your trash, fishing lines and hooks properly so they don’t end up in our waterways. Don’t feed manatees, either—these gentle giants have been finding food on their own for thousands of years and when fed by humans, they become inclined to venture into marinas where they are more likely to be hit by a boat or entangled in fishing line. Cold weather poses a threat, too—when water temperatures dip under a chilly 68°, the stress of the cold can become dangerous, or even fatal.

Volunteers assist with manatee rescue

Zoo volunteers help assess the health of a stranded manatee calf.

Although the Zoo is not equipped for any manatee residents, we’re dedicated to helping these adorable sea cows in the wild! Our director of conservation programs leads a special group of trained Zoo staff and volunteers always thrilled to jump into action to help rescue a stranded manatee. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has asked for our assistance in dozens of situations, ranging from manatees trapped in backyard ponds or dragging crab traps to monofilament entanglement cases and, most recently, cold-weather stuns.

We recognize the need for institutions across Florida to have facilities equipped to rehabilitate injured manatees. To this end, Women of the Wild, one of our key conservation groups, donated $5,000 to the construction of Jacksonville Zoo’s Manatee Critical Care Center in 2016!

What’s not to love about manatees? Their massive bodies, gentle nature and squishy faces make it hard to not say “aww.” That doesn’t mean they aren’t in trouble. If you spot an injured manatee, don’t intervene directly. Call 1-888-404-FWCC and let trained professionals give it the best chance at getting back home!