ZooTampa report exonerates vet — but he's still not allowed to treat manatees (2024)

Published Dec. 10, 2018

ZooTampa officials said Monday a review found that a top veterinarian there is not responsible for killing two manatees with his medical treatment, but they are not ready to let him resume treating marine mammals.

Senior veterinarian Ray Ball will be treating other types of animals at the zoo, while another vet, Lauren Smith, takes charge of treating manatees in its care, the officials announced during a news conference.

Ball was put on paid leave while a team of unidentified manatee experts reviewed his work, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said two months ago it had received "credible reports" questioning the quality of care he was giving manatees. The experts' report was submitted to the federal agency on Friday, and officials there answered questions about it Monday.

They said they would release the report to the public Tuesday. Wildlife agency officials are just beginning to read through it, an agency spokeswoman said. She did not know if the government has a deadline to respond.

"There were issues raised in the review" about Ball failing to communicate with coworkers or other veterinarians about why he was taking the steps he was taking in caring for injured and sick manatees, said Joe Couceiro, president and chief executive officer of ZooTampa.

One of the big concerns: Ball failed to cite specific scientific reasons for taking some medical steps that ran contrary to normal forms of treatment for manatees, zoo officials said.

As a result, Ball will not be treating any manatees "while zoo management … works with Dr. Ball to develop stronger, routine collaborative practices and to improve communication with staff and peers," they said in a news release.

A zoo spokeswoman had said Ball had been trying out some experimental treatments for a grant. A spokesman for the agency that gave the grant said that wasn't its purpose. A 2011 letter of agreement between the wildlife agency and the institution then known as the Lowry Park Zoo spells out that any experimental treatments can be conducted "only under a scientific research permit" which is not what the zoo has.

But on a conference call with reporters Monday, zoo attorney Deborah Brown contended that all of Ball's work on manatees "has been within the scope of the permit." Larry Killmar, the zoo's s chief zoological officer, acknowledged that there are no written standards of care for treating manatees, and "there is room for improvement in that."

Until the Fish and Wildlife Service approves the renewal of the zoo's permit to handle manatees, the zoo cannot use its newly renovated David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center. The center is ready to reopen after being shut down for a year for a taxpayer-funded $3 million upgrade to the water filtration system. While the care center was out of commission, hundreds of manatees have been sickened or killed by the state's lengthy Red Tide algae bloom.

ZooTampa report exonerates vet — but he's still not allowed to treat manatees (1)

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.


You’re all signedup!

Want more of our free, weekly newslettersinyourinbox? Let’sgetstarted.

Explore all your options

"We are trying to get back in business," zoo spokeswoman Kristy Chase-Tozer said.

In addition to the steps regarding Ball, zoo officials said they would also make changes in their Animal Welfare Committee, the group that deals with any problems regarding care of the zoo's animal, to make it more accessible to employees with concerns. But Couceiro said that is not an acknowledgement that there had been any prior complaints about Ball.

On Oct. 22, the Fish and Wildlife Service sent ZooTampa officials a letter citing "credible reports" of medical malpractice that harmed manatees. The most damaging allegations involved a treatment called "chest taps." When manatees are hit by boats, their ribs can break and puncture a lung so they are unable to submerge. A chest tap involves sticking a needle into the manatee's chest to remove air, but the needle can go in too deep and puncture the lung again.

The accusation was that Ball's chest taps had killed two manatees, the letter said. But Killmar said that an examination of the two manatees did not find that the chest taps were the primary cause of death.

Another wildlife agency question involved the rescue of wild manatees entangled in fishing line. The agency said Ball had been accused of amputating manatee flippers and then releasing them with "exposed bones" and "without treatment for infection and pain."

Zoo officials acknowledged that Ball, on at least one occasion, released a manatee missing a flipper without providing follow-up care. However, the manatee was later seen alive, so they contended that meant its care was adequate.

Other points looked at experimental drugs Ball used on manatees, and the type of feed he gave them. Zoo officials did not discuss those points in detail.

Ball, 52, of Carrollwood, is a 1992 graduate of the University of Florida's School of Veterinary Medicine who got his start with the Midway Animal Hospital in hom*osassa. He later worked at Busch Gardens in Tampa prior to becoming the senior veterinarian at what was then known as the Lowry Park Zoo in 2010.

Ball was not part of the news conference. The one time he has responded to a request for comment was when a reporter asked about the memoir he wrote in which he calls himself a "rogue veterinarian." He expressed happiness that someone had bought his book.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

ZooTampa report exonerates vet — but he's still not allowed to treat manatees (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Maia Crooks Jr

Last Updated:

Views: 6167

Rating: 4.2 / 5 (43 voted)

Reviews: 82% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Maia Crooks Jr

Birthday: 1997-09-21

Address: 93119 Joseph Street, Peggyfurt, NC 11582

Phone: +2983088926881

Job: Principal Design Liaison

Hobby: Web surfing, Skiing, role-playing games, Sketching, Polo, Sewing, Genealogy

Introduction: My name is Maia Crooks Jr, I am a homely, joyous, shiny, successful, hilarious, thoughtful, joyous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.