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Manatee center expansion will improve animal care, provide a ‘connected’ visitor’s experience

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There’s no denying that Florida’s various ecosystems and animals play a large role in the state’s image and culture. But because of a variety of factors, many of these animals are under constant threats for their survival.

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One place in our own backyard is taking important steps to improve its facility while providing visitors a more personal experience.

The Jacksonville Zoo has big plans in the works, and they’re going to benefit one of Florida’s favorite animals - the manatee.

A $25 million upgrade to the Manatee critical care center is currently underway. An open date is planned for late 2024.

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“The primary function will be acute care and rehabilitation,” said Craig Miller, curator of manatee conservation at the Jacksonville Zoo. “It will be an expansion of what we’re currently doing. Our guests will be able to see animals rehabilitating in a more natural setting.”

To accomplish this, the zoo will construct a replica free-flowing spring-fed Florida river, to mimic where manatee normally congregate in the wild.

The objective is to give injured or cold-stricken animals the best possible chance for recovery while also providing visitors a habitat that makes them feel a close connection.

“Our main goal has been to make sure this facility functions well for rehab, so we can treat as many animals as possible and get them released back into the wild as quickly as possible,” Miller explained. “It is also a very important goal to make sure guests feel connected to these incredible animals and the work we do, so key to the design is that the manatees can comfortably move back and forth between the habitats where the guests can view them and the holding pools where they receive treatment.”

Photos: Orphaned manatees to return to Florida after receiving treatment in Ohio

Cullen Richart, construction projects manager for the Jacksonville Zoo, detailed that the special habitat will, “include all species of fish, reptiles, birds along with manatees found in our wild, clear rivers. The river will originate in a mockup of the flume section of the Steinhatchee waterfall, wagon wheel ruts and all.”

While boat strikes continue to be a huge problem for manatees, Miller says that the poor water quality in the Indian River Lagoon has led to algal blooms that block the sunlight and cause the seagrass to die. Manatees rely on the seagrass for food, especially during the winter.

“Animals arrive underweight and often are experiencing complications related to starvation,” said Miller.

While these problems persist throughout our waterways, both Miller and Richart are optimistic about the role the new expansion will have.

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“All the organizations doing this important rescue, rehabilitation, release, and monitoring work make up the manatee rescue and rehabilitation partnership,” said Miller. “And by the way, the general public is a critical partner when it comes to saving manatees because they are the ones finding and reporting the sick and injured animals.”

Richart added, “We are at the front door to Florida for millions of people and this habitat will provide a huge opportunity to educate our visitors on the other Florida and how important it is for all of us to protect our native partners and their habitat.”

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