Friday, May 21, 1999

Manatees, crocs and more

$4 million zoo exhibit re-creates Florida ecosystem

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marlin, a rare 12 1/2 foot American crocodile, shares the exhibit with two manatees.
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        Consider it a Florida getaway without leaving town. Manatee Springs, the $4 million, 11,500-square-foot exhibit opening Saturday at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, is the only exhibit in the world devoted exclusively to Florida wildlife, zoo associate director Jack Huelsman says.

        Doubters need only step up to the the heavy glass doors, wait a sec while they open, then step inside.

        It's very hot. Very sticky. Very overgrown. Like a giant terrarium.

        Bingo, Mr. Huelsman says, shielding his eyes from the sun beating through an 81-foot glass ceiling. To his right, an alligator suns itself on an artificial beach. To his left, Marlin the croc is enjoying an afternoon swim. Well, float actually. Marlin takes life very easy.

        Step in a little deeper, over a foot bridge and through another set of heavy doors, and it's still Florida, but now it's air-conditioned Florida, complete with two manatees, a tangle of snakes and exotic fish.

  • Who: Manatees Douglas and Stoneman, crocodile Marlin, several alligators and a building full of other species native to Florida, plus more than 100 species of tropical plants imported from Florida.
  • What: Manatee Springs at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
  • When: Opens to the public Saturday. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
  • Where: 3400 Vine St., Avondale.
  • Tickets: Manatee Springs is free with zoo admission: $10; $4.75 children 2-12; $7 seniors 62 and older; parking $5.
  • Information: 281-4700.
        The manatees are the whole point of this trip. Douglas, a 700-pound 3-year-old orphan, and Stoneman, an 800-pound 4-year-old born in captivity, are for the moment the only manatees on display in the Midwest. (The Columbus Zoo will open Manatee Coast in mid-June with four manatees.)

Lap of luxury
        Until they arrived here, Douglas and Stoneman lived at Miami Seaquarium, a facility that has been rescuing and rehabilitating manatees since the '50s. They were lent to Cincinnati as part of a U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife program designed to free space in Florida facilities for the critical care of manatees injured by boat propellers or tangled in fishing line, the two biggest threats to their well being.

        It's likely that Douglas and Stoneman will spend the rest of their lives here — 60 to 90 years. Raised in captivity, they had no mothers to show them migration routes. Without knowing the routes, they'd swim into open waters and die of hypothermia. Anything below 68 degrees kills.

        But that's OK, it will be 60 years in the lap of watery luxury: A spacious 120,000-gallon freshwater tank filled with underwater plants, coral outcroppings and water that will never dip below 75 degrees.

        Mr. Huelsman designed the facility to make sure the manatees would be living the good life: “Everything is done with total redundancy — two of everything, so if one fails, the other kicks in.”

        That means: Two skimmers get rid of surface debris. Two 250,000 BTU heaters warm the water. Two filters clean 4,000 gallons a minute, keeping water perfectly clear and totally recycled every 30 minutes.

        Filtration is important, given the manatees' diets: Vegetarians, they chow down 70 pounds of food a day — 60 pounds lettuce and a 10-pound mix of apples, sweet potatoes, bananas and biscuits.

        A diet like that can cloud the water in a hurry.

State of the art
        Mr. Huelsman's design is so up to date that veteran manatee keepers are flying here to see it.

        Tom Hopkins, animal operations manager at Epcot's Living Seas, a facility that has shown manatees since the early '90s, took the tour in early May and pronounced it one of the best he's seen.

        Robert Rose, curator at Miami Seaquarium, was here in late April and agreed: “I can't tell you how impressed I am. Jack (Huelsman) actually over-engineered. It's state of the art and then some — one of the best anywhere.”

        It's a home that has been a long time coming. Vaguely conceived in 1985, in the planning stages since 1989, delayed by a five-alarm fire in 1998, it's an immersion exhibit that plunges the visitor into the animal's environment.

        That explains the terrarium. It is southern Florida, says staff horticulturist Dave Ehrlinger, who supervised the plantings.

        Huge cabbage palmettos tower almost to the 38-foot glass ceiling. Mangroves, with their exposed, spindly roots clinging to the sandy soil, add greenery to alligator and crocodile tanks.

        Flowering Jamaican capers, Carolina jessamine, hibiscus, magnolias, water cannis, water iris and pickerel weed provide explosions of tropical color and fragrance.

        Overall, more than 100 species of imported tropical plants crowd the terrarium.

A rare crocodile
        So do animals. Free-flying birds and butterflies zoom overhead, free-roaming toads and tiny lizards scoot along the ground, while an all-around sound system re-creates swamp sounds.

        “The frogs love the sound system,” Mr. Huelsman says. “They start talking back to it, and there's no shutting them up.”

        First stop in the terrarium is the 5,500-gallon alligator tank with a plexiglass front for under- and above-water viewing. The five to seven alligators share space with hard-shell turtles — “hard enough that the alligators can't eat them,” Mr. Huelsman says.

        Next stop is a footbridge over a 1,000-gallon pool filled with gar, a sleek freshwater fish.

        Across the footbridge, the visitor is face to face with another of the stars: Marlin is an American croc who, at 121/2 feet, is only 21/2 feet short of a world record.

        Lounging in his 8,200-gallon tank, he looks docile, but don't let it fool you: He has already left teeth marks in the plexiglass on the front of a tank — seems a photographer leaned over for a picture and Marlin lunged.

        What makes Marlin a star is his rarity: The species is critically endangered, with only about 100 left in the world. He shares his tank with hermit crabs, bass, blue gill and crappies.

        Another set of heavy doors leads to the main room where the manatee is surrounded by tanks full of snakes, alligators, snapping turtles and alien species (red belly piranha, talapia, lizards) that have been introduced to Florida and now pose a threat to native wildlife.

        A trip through this place is going to take some time, Mr. Huelsman says. “We expect visitors to spend about an hour going through. I'm worried that we're going to have to nudge them along.

        “The problem will be the manatees. People, even our staff here, just stand and stare. They bring on such a level of tranquility, you can't help but be hypnotized.”

        There are some extras to celebrate the opening ...

        • Sleep with the Manatees: Beginning in June, visitors can spend the night in Manatee Springs as part of the Nocturnal Adventures program. It includes after-hours tours, animal demonstrations, guided activities, a night sleeping in the manatee exhibit and breakfast the next morning. Open to groups of 15 or more; children must be at least 8 years old; $30 a person. Call 559-7767.

        • Manatees: The Edge of Extinction: It makes its U.S. debut June 10 in the zoo's Special Exhibits Building. Designed by the Potomac Museum Group, it's an interactive display with “touch and feel” specimens, video and audio stations, mounted skeletons, models, evolution of the manatee and more. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, through Sept. 15; free with zoo admission. Call (800) 94-HIPPO (800-944-4776).

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