Mote Marine Laboratory releases details on death of Hugh the manatee

Hugh the manatee was 38 years old.
Hugh the manatee was 38 years old.(Mote)
Published: Jul. 25, 2023 at 9:41 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Following the necropsy report on the death of a manatee at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, officials have provided a detailed account of Hugh’s last day.

The necropsy report states that Hugh died from a 14.5 centimeter rip in his colon caused by a sexual encounter with another male Manatee, Buffett. Buffett is Hugh’s brother. The United States Department of Agriculture states that Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium failed to act to protect Hugh which lead to his death.

Hugh was born at Miami Seaquarium and arrived at Mote from ZooTampa on May 2, 1996, where he served as an ambassador for his species, and routinely and voluntarily took part in manatee research studies.

On April 29, Hugh began exhibiting a change in behavior and staff began monitoring him closely. He became unresponsive. Officials with USDA say that “facility representatives, employees observed high intensity sexual behavior between two adult male manatees, which resulted in rectal penetration of the smaller male, at approximately 10 a.m. Shortly after this interaction, employees collected a fecal sample from the smaller male and confirmed the presence of fresh blood. The sexual behavior continued throughout the day with periods of rest between high intensity interactions and occasional penetration. At approximately 5:15 pm, the larger male was observed penetrating the smaller male again. When the larger male swam away, the smaller male was seen unresponsive at the bottom of the pool. It was confirmed that he had passed.”

On Tuesday, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium released a statement on its Facebook page:

Given the recent media coverage of the events surrounding the passing of our beloved and recently deceased resident manatee, Hugh, it is important that we share an overview of the facts to ensure complete clarity on the cause of Hugh’s death. Throughout the events leading up to Hugh’s passing, Mote acted within the professional standards and practices that we have observed throughout the 27-years Hugh and Buffett have lived together at Mote, and as recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP). On the day of Hugh’s passing, Hugh and Buffett engaged in natural, yet increased, mating behavior observed and documented in manatees both in managed care and in the wild.

This was the first time such heightened mating behavior was witnessed between the two manatees. However, each year, like other male manatees in both the wild and in managed care, Hugh and Buffett would exhibit approximately two months of seasonal behavioral changes including, but not limited to, an increase in sexual behavior. The manatees were under heightened observation throughout the day and the animal care team was in constant close communications with, and following the direction of, the attending veterinarians throughout the day. Hugh and Buffett were both observed initiating and mutually seeking interactions from each other throughout the day and there were no obvious signs of discomfort or distress such as listing, crunching, or active avoidance that would have triggered a need for intervention.

Following the direction of the veterinarians, distraction rather than physical separation was chosen because separation has previously caused undue anxiety and negative effects in both manatees. In an effort to redirect the manatees’ attention and decrease undesirable behaviors, animal care staff used positive reinforcement tools such as high value rewards and enrichment that had previously been successful. Since opening its doors, Mote has always prided itself in providing the utmost care for all of its animals. In fact, a week prior to this devastating incident, the USDA performed an annual inspection, and our staff was recognized by the USDA for the high quality of care provided to our manatees. The inspector even noted that he would love to show our facility as a gold standard to other facilities. And that is what we will continue to strive for - serving as a gold standard for animal health and wellbeing, as we have shown throughout our history. As such, we are redoubling our efforts to ensure our animal care operations meet or exceed existing and evolving policies, recommendations and guideline of the AZA, MRP, Animal Welfare Act, USFWS and USDA.

Thank you for your continued support during this heartbreaking time. Our Mote family continues to mourn the loss of Hugh, and we know you do, too. Your kind words and meaningful memories of Hugh are truly appreciated.