By Kevin Spear Orlando Sentinel
---- — ORLANDO, Fla. — Lil Joe the manatee needs an agent for the unfolding story of his life, which continues to amaze and now includes an unexpected reunion with an old pal.
Lil Joe was plucked recently from a shallow river in east Orange County, Fla., where he had been marooned and starving for weeks. He was so dehydrated and underweight that the knobs and recesses of his skull were strikingly visible, his ribs were bulging and the loose skin of his concave belly was bunched up.
He was taken back to SeaWorld Orlando, where he had lived as an orphaned newborn, and was reunited with Slip, his longtime aquarium mate. The two manatees, who first met nearly 20 years ago, were kindred spirits during a years-long tour of the nation before they were set free together a little more than two years ago in the same Central Florida spring.
Now, when they aren’t performing balletic corkscrews in their SeaWorld tank, the reconnected manatees are between them devouring 200 heads of restaurant-grade romaine lettuce each day. And if they aren’t thinking about it as humans might, they might at least be feeling a primal tug that amounts to: “What’s next?”
Lil Joe was first rescued from the Halifax River near Daytona Beach, Fla., on July 30, 1989, weeks old and weighing 42 pounds. With his mother presumed dead, Lil Joe would gain fans at SeaWorld as a pudgy, bottle-raised orphan even fed once by then-President George H.W. Bush.
Slip, named after the marina space where boats dock, was born at SeaWorld on Nov. 22, 1991. His mother, Marina, had been rescued in 1979 and was SeaWorld’s first bottled-raised calf. She died three weeks later of birth-related complications, so Slip, like Lil Joe, hardly knew his mom.
The two orphans grew close, perhaps not by choice but as a result of the protocols for rearing captive members of the endangered species.
Biologists thought then that orphaned calves reared in captivity would never acquire the skills needed to survive in the wild. So they sent them off together for years of adventure. First stop: SeaWorld in San Diego. Next, the pair moved to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, where they wowed visitors for four years. It was there that Lil Joe bulked up to a weight of 1,950 pounds, or nearly a ton.
In 2009, the two were shipped to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla., and introduced to the kinds of river plants that manatees ordinarily eat. The science of manatee care had evolved as Slip and Lil Joe grew, and biologists at that point were confident the two could be released.
So on Feb. 15, 2010, they were set free at Blue Spring, just off the St. Johns River near Orange City, Fla., where the relatively warm spring water attracts hundreds of manatees each winter. The two apparently had had enough of each other and went their separate ways.
Lil Joe turned up a few months later farther north in the St. Johns, stunned by cold weather. He was rescued, rehabbed and put back into the river several months after that. Then, as winter approached last year, he slipped out of his radio-tracking belt and disappeared. Lil Joe was feared dead.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 4 of this year, Slip was hauled from Crescent Lake, which connects to the St. Johns River near Palatka, Fla. Stressed by cold, he was taken back to SeaWorld Orlando.
And in August, an unknown manatee appeared in the Little Econlockhatchee River in east Orange County, a highly unusual place for a sea cow to go.
A few weeks later, a wildlife volunteer spotted an “R 5” brand on the animal’s back, confirming it was Lil Joe. (Slip is “R 1.”) State biologists suspected that the Little Econ, no longer swollen from early summer rains, had trapped Lil Joe.
Steve Lehr, assistant curator of mammals at SeaWorld, said the manatee was ailing when he was rescued Sept. 27. He weighed just 1,010 pounds, little more than half his Ohio weight.
He was tube-fed water for a few days, then a watery gruel of mashed romaine lettuce and high-protein monkey chow. Veterinarians did a scan of his abdomen, worried he might have swallowed fishing hooks or tackle, but nothing like that was detected. Lil Joe did pass quite a bit of cushion foam for several days, however, along with some cloth and rope.