Zoo’s rarest animal has room to roam in new native habitat

TAMPA, FL – Florida’s endangered native wildlife now has its own place in ZooTampa Lowry Park.

On Thursday, ZooTampa staff and patrons, along with Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers, cut the ribbon for the new habitat, The Florida Wilds, dedicated to native Florida species.

The Florida Wilds provides more room for these species while allowing visitors a closer look at black bears, owls, manatees, Florida panthers, red wolves, river otters, American bald eagles , sandhill cranes, flamingos, American alligators and skunks.

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But the Florida Wilds is more than a spacious animal habitat.

He will play a vital role in the zoo’s efforts to preserve Florida’s endangered species, including ZooTampa’s rarest animal, the red wolf.

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The habitat will allow ZooTampa to expand its participation in the Association of Zoo and Aquarium’s Species Survival Program for the Critically Endangered Red Wolf.

Historically, red wolves have been found from Texas east to Florida and north to Pennsylvania in mountains, lowland forests and wetlands, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Trapped and killed to protect livestock and game, the red wolf was listed as extinct in the wild by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1980.

Before they were wiped out, the wildlife service captured 17 red wolves for breeding. In 1987, wolves were reintroduced into the wild in two national parks.

There are 30 red wolves now living in the wild at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and a single breeding pair living at St. Vincent’s Island National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. West Florida.

Additionally, there are about 200 red wolves in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s captive breeding program.

Working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the wildlife service launched the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan to help increase the genetic diversity and population numbers of the species.

With that in mind, the wildlife department has sent two female red wolves to ZooTampa in hopes that they will mate with the male red wolf siblings – Yule, Redington and Connor – who already live at the zoo. The goal is to increase the population and reintroduce the red wolf to the Florida wilds.

In the Florida Wilds habitat, visitors may spot wolves sleeping in their dens or howling in sync.

While most ZooTampa animals benefit from training and enrichment activities, Red Wolves have very minimal human interaction. This is because their animal keepers want to keep them as close to their wild roots as possible for their eventual reintroduction to their natural habitat.

The red wolf isn’t the only animal the zoo is trying to save.

Due to red tide poisoning, starvation from loss of the manatee’s main food source, seagrass beds, and ship strikes, the FWC recorded a record 1,101 manatee deaths in 2021 , compared to 637 in 2020.

Just two months into 2022, the FWC has already reported 375 manatee deaths.

As the situation reaches a crisis, ZooTampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Manateae Critical Care Center, already the second-largest critical care facility for manatees in the United States, is expanding its center this year to accommodate more manatees. , including the addition of a nursery for baby manatees.


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Since its opening in the early 1990s, the manatee care center has cared for 500 manatees.

Another expansion target is the Florida Panther. A subspecies of Cougar, there are less than 200 Florida panthers in the wild.

The zoo currently has three Florida resident panthers.

Lucy was found by FWC biologists as a small kitten with severe head injuries. Because she was hand-raised by people, Lucy is not afraid of humans, and it has been determined that she could be a danger to herself and the public if released into the wild. .

Walter was brought to the zoo after he was found in Highlands County with his left foot caught in a trap, which ultimately caused the loss of his front leg.

Micanopy came to ZooTampa after being kicked out twice from residential areas where he preyed on pets. The Florida Panthers Interagency Response Team, made up of members of the FWC, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, decided that his behavior was a public safety issue and that he should be removed from the nature.

The new Florida Wilds exhibit not only gives the panthers more room to roam, but visitors can now get unobstructed views of the endangered cats.

In addition to caring for the zoo’s three resident panthers, ZooTampa has been named the No. 1 panther rescue facility in the state by the FWC. Thus, the zoo regularly welcomes panthers knocked down by cars, orphans or suffering from a rare genetic disease that biologists are still studying.

“The reason we’re here isn’t just to have animals in zoos,” said ZooTampa CEO Joe Couceiro. “We are here to protect and preserve wildlife.”

“Our accomplishments over the past 12 months embody the mission that drives everything we do at the zoo,” said Tiffany Burns, director of conservation, research and behavior at the zoo. “Our plans for 2022 are equally ambitious and will deepen the zoo’s positive impact on wildlife around the world.”

She said the Florida Wilds also give the zoo an opportunity to educate visitors about environmental conservation.

The area has interpretive signs, including rookery towers, that provide guidance to Floridians on how to live safely alongside the many species that share the state’s diverse ecosystem. Daily talks with animal experts also take place in the new area.

The Florida Wilds include:

  • David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center
  • Florida Boardwalk
  • Manatee Mangrove
  • Key West Bridge
  • Saunders Conservation Theater
  • Bald Eagle Overlook Gift Shop

Although ZooTampa receives county, state, and federal grants, including money from Hillsborough County to help build the Florida Wilds, the nonprofit zoo relies primarily on private donations.

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Dora W. Clawson