How a USF Library Study Session Saved a Life

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If you follow USF Libraries on the socials, you know we are fans of a good animal rescue story. We’ve got staff who always have an eye open for urban wildlife in need and we like to share these stories because they can be heartwarming, but also because there’s usually a lesson to learn from each of them. 

We have a happy ending to report from one of the USF Libraries’ most famous of animal rescues: “Burro” the manatee.
You may have heard about the day in January 2023 when Kierstyn Benjamin, then a junior studying marine biology, settled down in her favorite corner of Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USF St. Pete to get some studying done. Benjamin tells us she prefers this spot in the library because it gives her a full view of Bayboro Harbor where she frequently spots dolphins and other marine life.  

USF student Kierstyn Benjamin in front of the library at USF St Pete
USF Marine biology senior, Kierstyn Benjamin, in front of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USF St. Pete.

Looking up from her studies, Benjamin noticed an animal in the harbor and got a feeling that something wasn’t right. Heading out to the sea wall, she found a small manatee that appeared to be having trouble. Immediately, Benjamin called the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Wildlife Alert Hotline. Thanks to her quick actions, the juvenile male manatee, who was suffering from cold stress, was soon rescued by a wildlife response team.  

The manatee, eventually nicknamed “Burro”, spent nearly a year in rehabilitation at both Zoo Tampa and Walt Disney World’s EPCOT.  Once an injured or distressed manatee receives critical medical care, a major goal of rehabilitation is to ensure they are at a good body weight to support their overall health. Scott Terrell, DVM, DACVP, and Director of Animal & Science Operations at Walt Disney Parks & Resorts notes in the Disney Parks blog, “When in our care, manatees may receive up to 150 heads of romaine lettuce each day depending on their individual needs, along with the occasional treat of apples, carrots and sweet potatoes, to help them return to their natural weight before they are able to be released.”

Thousands of heads of lettuce later, Burro was ready to return to the wild. On a recent morning, FWC invited USF Libraries to experience Burro’s release at the Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach. The manatee viewing center provides educational programs and viewing opportunities of the hundreds of manatees that congregate there in chilly weather, thanks to the warm water flowing from the Apollo Beach power plant. 

Burro the manatee being released by a team of animal rescuers at the manatee viewing center in Apollo Beach
Burro the manatee is released back into the wild after rehabilitation.

It took a true team effort to transport the now 800 lb. Burro from a truck to the release site. It was a bumpy ride with many shuffling steps but as soon as his flippers hit the water, Burro silently slipped away – a graceful entry for such a big guy. As he slid under the surface, he was greeted by other manatees. On land, the rescue team and onlookers cheered in celebration. 

A year later, Benjamin notes that she saved a life but that hers has also been changed by the experience. “I always wanted to study sharks,” she says. “But now it’s manatees!” Over the summer, Benjamin interned with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium where she had the opportunity to take part in many wildlife rescues (including two manatees) and learn more about the rescue and rehabilitation process.  

Just a few days ago, another call was made by a USF student to the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline, and a large team of rescuers again converged outside of the library. As students and staff looked on, a small female manatee suffering from cold  stress was gently removed from Bayboro Harbor, placed in the back of a truck, and transported to Zoo Tampa. She, like Burro, will receive round-the-clock care until she can safely be released back into the wild.  

Special thanks to Andy Garrett, FWC Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator, for letting us follow along in Burro’s journey and inviting us to experience his release!

To report wildlife in distress, please contact the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or call #FWC or *FWC from your cell phone. Follow @MyFWC online for more stories and information about Florida’s amazing wildlife.


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