This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Manatee Update # 5: Dennis Almost Gave Rescuers the Slip

(From this morning's Boston Globe)


By David Abel, Globe Staff October 12, 2008
DENNIS - The large, blubbery mammal was crafty. Every time the rescue boats approached, he slipped away - beneath the docks, under boats, nearly out of the harbor.
In the end, with the open ocean only a few hundred feet away, a team of federal, state, local, and nonprofit rescue workers yesterday cut off his escape from Sesuit Harbor and nabbed the 800-pound sea cow with a large net.
Within an hour, using a mooring barge and a forklift, they hauled the torpid manatee, whose life was in danger after straying into waters far colder than his normal habitat, into a waiting Penske moving truck, where they readied him for a long drive to a rehabilitation clinic at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla.
"I'd say things went as well as we could have hoped for," said Jon Peterson, a rescuer from SeaWorld.
The manatee dubbed Dennis, who had become a celebrity in recent days on Cape Cod, was the first ever to make it so far north. Manatees typically live off Florida and the southeastern coast of the United States. The rescuers said his temperature had fallen 24 degrees below normal.
The operation began before dawn as officials from SeaWorld, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, state environmental agencies, and local police, firefighters, and the harbormaster gathered in a parking lot beside the harbor.
After they agreed on a plan, they readied their boats, equipment, and personnel for the operation. The effort would cost tens of thousands of dollars, said Katie Touhey, a rescuer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"It is a lot of money to spend on an animal, but it's an endangered species," Touhey said. "It's an honor to be part of this, for those of us who have a passion for animals."
The first job of the morning was to find Dennis, who at that point could have been a Denise, given that rescue workers did not confirm his gender until later.
It didn't take long to spot his whiskered snout, as he had taken a liking to the kelp and other seaweed attached to all the mooring lines in the harbor. The team quickly found him lumbering through the oil-covered waters.
As he sprayed water from his snout, local police began ordering the growing number of gawkers on shore to get behind yellow tape. The rescuers then dropped a running hose off a dock, hoping the fresh water would attract him.
But as firefighters suited up in diving gear and SeaWorld officials jumped in the water in an effort to guide him to a net, Dennis disappeared. He slipped under a dock and out of sight.
Over the next two hours, the barnacle-flecked beast played hide and seek while the team chased him around on several boats.
At about 10 a.m., the team spotted Dennis as he swam toward the mouth of the harbor. They moved in position and surrounded him with a net.
With a hushed throng watching, two members of the team jumped in beside the net and began splashing in the water, an effort to distract Dennis and make it easier to reel him in. The rest of the team stood in a small boat and began pulling up the net.
Dennis made a sluggish effort to escape, but after flopping around for a few seconds, he appeared to give up. There was nothing he could do as the team pulled him in, wrapped a nylon sling around him, and pulled him to the side of the boat.
A mooring barge moved in and the team connected the sling to a crane, which pulled Dennis aboard the barge. Then workers removed the net, secured him between two wood blocks, and poured water on his elephant-like skin to keep him hydrated.
A half-hour later, rescuers connected chains and straps to the sling, and a forklift hoisted Dennis and hauled him onto land.
"Just don't drop him," Peterson advised the forklift operator. "Think of him as one of those expensive boats you take out."
The forklift heaved him up about 15 feet and lugged him over to the yellow moving truck, which was the team's second choice for transportation to Florida. They had sought an aircraft, but it would have taken too long to arrange for the flight. It was quicker to drive.
As he was maneuvered into the truck by forklift, about 12 members of the team guided Dennis inside, atop a bed of foam, where they covered him in blankets and began examining him.
Applause rang out from the crowd.
The team's veterinarian went to work, taking Dennis's temperature and testing his blood. His temperature was dangerously low, at 74 degrees, 24 degrees below what it should have been, and his blood sugar was half of normal. He also had a laceration beside his left eye, and his left fin seemed damaged.
But he was breathing normally, about every five minutes.
"What this shows is that he wouldn't have survived much longer had we not got to him now," said Michael Moore, the team's veterinarian.
The surrounding crowd sighed approvingly as they peeked inside the truck.
"I think it's pretty cool what they're doing," said Phoebe Newton, 9, who had come with her mother from Harwich. "But it really puzzles me how he went all the way from Florida and got up here."
Gabi Poretta, 20, of Dennis was in awe.
"It's just insane that they found a manatee here," she said. She and others pondered whether it was global warming or some other reason that allowed Dennis to journey so far from home, such as increased competition for food from a resurgent population of sea cows. But they couldn't get over the spectacle.
"Just awesome," said Phil Burnham, 41, who brought his three children from Mansfield to watch. "It's nice that they could save him."
As he spoke, the rescue team packed up and the yellow truck rolled out of the parking lot, on its way to Orlando.
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com

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