Updated on September 07, 2023

By the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Cover image courtesy of Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

On International Manatee Day (Sept. 7) and every day, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium are proud to celebrate this incredible, beloved species and raise awareness about how we can all work together to help protect their future.

manatee with spotsImage courtesy of Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Manatee conservation

Florida manatees are at risk from many threats, such as watercraft strikes, red tide, cold stress, entanglement or ingesting of fishing gear, entrapment and habitat loss. Additionally, manatees located on the Atlantic side of Florida have experienced an unusually high level of mortality since 2020. This is primarily due to a lack of food, like sea grass, present in the warm waters that manatees seek out during colder months, as well as additional contributing factors.

Fortunately, there are efforts underway by dedicated teams — including the wonderful animal care professionals at the Columbus Zoo — who are working to make a difference.

Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership

For more than 20 years, the Columbus Zoo has been a partner of the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP). In 1999 the Columbus Zoo became the MRP’s first program partner outside of Florida. The MRP is a cooperative group of nonprofit, private, state and federal entities who are working together to:

  • Collectively inspire and advance manatee conservation by partnering cooperatively in manatee rescue, rehabilitation, release and monitoring efforts
  • Improve understanding of manatee biology and health through scientific research
  • Promote stewardship and financial support through public education

The Columbus Zoo is currently one of only three facilities outside of Florida to care for manatees, playing a significant role in the recovery of the species. The zoo is a second stage rehabilitation facility that provides a temporary home for manatees until they are ready for release back to the wild. To date, the zoo has helped 32 manatees return to Florida after completing this stage of their rehabilitation.

Manatee research, education and protection

Over the last five years, the Columbus Zoo has also provided more than $210,000 to research, education and protection of manatee species worldwide. Additionally, earlier this year, two Columbus Zoo animal care team members spent a week in Florida to work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) . The FWC maintains several field offices throughout Florida and is responsible for surveying the manatee population and responding to manatee-related issues. Zoo team members monitored manatees, collected environmental data and recorded information about the manatee population at several sites.

While the continued success of the Columbus Zoo’s manatee program is thanks in large part to the expertise and dedication of our professional care team and the support of our partners, guests, and community, there is another special key player involved in this work.

Her name accurately describes her silhouette, permanently altered due to injuries previously sustained from a boat strike. Yet, this name is also rather unassuming given her larger-than-life presence and impact.

Meet the Columbus Zoo’s long-term resident, community favorite and affectionately-dubbed “Aquatic Queen of the Columbus Zoo”…Stubby.

rescue manatee being lowered into aquarium water

two manatees in waterImages courtesy of Allison Martain, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Stubby, the manatee

Stubby was rescued in 1995 around age 10 in the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, Florida. She then arrived at the Columbus Zoo on Oct. 9, 2005, from the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Florida (another partner in the rehabilitation and recovery program), along with two other sub-adult rescued female manatees, Holly and Willoughby. All three were found to have a papillomavirus and, while they were at the Columbus Zoo, they took part in a research project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to learn more about the papillomavirus with hopes of helping to potentially find a cure. Ultimately, the project concluded after determining that the papillomavirus was found in manatee populations in professional care and the wild and it was nonlethal for the species.

injured manatee tailImage courtesy of Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Tough beginnings for Stubby

While Holly and Willoughby were approved to begin their next rehabilitation phase by returning to Florida for eventual release, Stubby’s health evaluation showed that she was not yet ready. Her injuries from the boat strike had resulted in her losing a large portion of her tail — and that was just the beginning of her health challenges.

According to the Zoo’s animal health team, evidence of dermatitis (a skin infection) was first reported in Stubby in 2011. The infection progressed to the point that large areas of her body were affected. She became quite ill with a possible systemic infection, though the cause of the infection was not fully able to be determined. Stubby’s care team worked around the clock to aggressively treat her with antibiotics, antivirals, fluid therapy, nutritional assistance and wound care — at some points requiring daily or twice daily treatments.

“This was a terrible struggle for Stubby. She lost a significant amount of weight during various outbreaks caused by the infection, and there were at least five times we came very close to losing her,” said Doug Warmolts, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s vice president of animal care. “I remember one day when all of us were sitting by her pool after we had just finished another round of treatment. We were trying to determine next steps and while we realized we were losing the battle, we just weren’t ready to give up on her.”

“I have never seen an animal rally back from a serious illness the way Stubby did, and she handled every one of her treatments with such grace. She was so trusting of us and so calm. She would look at us with those big, beautiful eyes, and I really believe that she knew we were trying to help her,” added Becky Ellsworth, Curator of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s shores and aquarium region, where Stubby resides.

At long last, due to her care team’s devotion and her own fighting spirit, Stubby’s health eventually improved, and she has since made a full recovery, with only residual scarring remaining on her skin. However, due to Stubby’s other previous injuries, she is considered to be a conditionally non-releasable animal. Her condition is evaluated every five years to determine if she is ready or not to return to Florida, but it is unlikely that she will move out of this category.

Although this is certainly unfortunate, in true Stubby fashion, it soon became clear that she was meant to forge her own path in helping her species.

manatee training at zoo with a zookeeperImage courtesy of Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Stubby’s training and contributions to conservation

As is the case with most animals that will return to their native ranges, care teams take a hand-off approach. This helps to ensure that the animals are not associating humans with food and that animals can fend for themselves in the wild. While the manatees’ care team at the zoo is careful not to directly interact with the manatees, USFWS provided special permission for Stubby to participate in training for medical and husbandry purposes since she is unlikely to be able to return to Florida and survive on her own.

While trainings such as mouth checks and blood collection are done so that her care team can help keep her in top health through preventative screenings, biannual exams and bloodwork, Stubby’s urine is also collected to help contribute to science. This has been used as part of a hormonal study to determine Stubby’s menstrual cycling so researchers can better understand the cycles of the wild manatee population.

After Stubby’s health stabilized and her interest in training grew —perhaps due to her fondness for rewards in the form of leaf-eater biscuits — her care team also noticed some other changes. As other manatees continued to come and go as part of the program, Stubby began to go off feed, seemingly affected if she did not have other manatees with her, even for a short amount of time.

This was relatively surprising since, at the time, researchers believed that manatees were usually more solitary. Because the care team had initially needed to place all their focus on getting Stubby through her illness, once she was better, they began seeing other behaviors, particularly how intricately she interacted with the orphaned calves.

three manateesImage courtesy of Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Manatee “mom mode”

As a second-stage rehabilitation facility, the zoo’s manatee care team does all tangible things possible for the animals. They make sure the animals are eating well, enriched and are receiving the top veterinary care. Even with all the expertise and dedication they provide, Stubby has voluntarily filled the role of a surrogate mother to the orphaned manatees who arrive, providing them with lessons that the human care team is unable to offer.

Stubby teaches them how to be a manatee.

“She socializes them and provides them with all the tools they will need that we will never know how to teach them,” Ellsworth said. “Each time new young manatees come to the zoo, Stubby immediately welcomes them. She lifts them to the surface to take a breath. She guides them out into the main aquarium and takes them on a full tour. She shows them where the food is and, of course, reminds them that she gets the good heads of lettuce.”

All the young manatees immediately take to Stubby, who thrives in her vital role. Her care team fondly recalls two particularly special instances when rare twin manatees, Millennium and Falcon, arrived at the zoo in 2016. Stubby only slightly hesitated, seemingly trying to decide which twin to greet first. She quickly rounded up both twins to show them around the zoo’s manatee coast habitat. In 2020, the Columbus Zoo welcomed Squirrel, who, at 116 pounds, was one of the smallest manatees ever to arrive at the zoo. Throughout Squirrel’s rehabilitation, she has rarely left Stubby’s side, often keeping one flipper on her even while sleeping. As Squirrel has grown since her arrival and will soon approach the opportunity to return to Florida, she has started to show more independence, also thanks to Stubby’s guidance.

“People will ask us how we know when a manatee is ready for release. There are a lot of benchmarks like weight and length and time they have been in professional care. But we always watch Stubby carefully, too. As quick as she is to take a young orphan under her flipper, she is just as quick to separate herself from the older ones that are ready to go,” Ellsworth said.

manatee eating lettuceImage courtesy of Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Stubby’s legacy 

 At the Columbus Zoo, Stubby has certainly achieved “celebrity status” while also developing a taste for the finer things in life like specific lettuce.

“We have tried providing locally grown lettuce to the manatees, though they have made it abundantly clear that they do not wish to support local agriculture. Since romaine only grows seasonally in our state, Ohio producers do not have the same level of infrastructure when compared alongside the larger producers in California that grow year-round. Without specialized equipment to remove the more claylike soil from Ohio grown lettuce, we thought it may be the earthy taste that was turning them away. However, after trying both aquaponics, as well as hydroponically grown romaine (both soilless growing techniques), Stubby is holding strong with her preference for lettuce that has been trucked across the country, despite our pleading about a more sustainable footprint,” said the Animal Nutrition team at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. “Long story short, the reason we do not source local romaine for Stubby is because she won’t ‘lettuce,’” they said with a smile.

Ultimately, Stubby is a manatee who knows what she likes … and staff are happy to oblige. After all, she has made an incredible impact on staff and guests alike.

“I remember visiting Stubby when I was a kid, and now I’m bringing my kids to the Zoo to see her,” said Annie N., a Columbus Zoo member from Westerville, Ohio. “She is one of our favorites — a true icon — and a great ambassador for her species as she provides our family with a personal connection and reminder of the importance of taking care of the world around us.”

Stubby’s care team has a long list of favorite memories, though many have to do with the inspiration, hope and lessons that she provides to them, too.

“I hope people see that if a manatee with health issues and no tail can find her calling in life, they can, too. The MRP is doing incredible work for the manatee population, and Stubby is a huge part of those efforts,” Ellsworth said. “Stubby has been through so much and has persevered through it all. She has played such an important role for so many animals, and she will never know the impact that she has had on the species. We have learned so much from her. She is a true gem.”


How can you aid in manatee conservation?

For International Manatee Day, we invite you to take action to help protect manatees and other aquatic species. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Reducing the use of fertilizers in our lawns and gardens helps prevent the harmful algae blooms in the ocean that may harm many sea animals and the food they depend on. Avoiding the use of fertilizers can also help local plants and wildlife return to their native ranges and habitats.
  • Report a sick, dead, injured or tagged manatee that you see in the wild.
  • Pick up trash! When trash ends up in our oceans, animals often mistake it for food. That same trash can also wash up on beaches and impede species like sea turtles from nesting.
  • Admire wildlife from a distance
  • Support sustainable seafood practice. Learn how to make the best choices when it comes to buying seafood.
  • Sunscreen is a must, especially in the hot summer days. Make sure to think about the ocean and use a sunscreen that is considered coral reef friendly.
  • And, of course, consider visiting the MRP partner facilities to learn more about manatees!


On behalf of Stubby, thank you for making a difference!


Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom traveled to Florida where we met some other resident manatees helping with conservation and education. Read more about that visit here.

Related posts

An image from a classic Wild Kingdom episode, featuring Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler. An image from a classic Wild Kingdom episode, featuring Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler.

Now Streaming: Classic Wild Kingdom Episodes

Relive your childhood by checking out clips from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom classic series with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler.