Most captive manatees are wild animals that have sustained an injury or illness necessitating their care in rehabilitation facilities. The majority of these animals are released back into their natural habitat upon recovery, but some have been so badly injured that they would be unable to survive without human assistance. Captive-born manatees represent an additional small population, with most ranging between 10 to 30 years of age. Human-dependent and captive-born manatees are a specialized population that remain in a long-term captive environment. Unfortunately, many of the regulations put in place to protect the rehabilitating manatees from becoming habituated to humans have impeded the development of alternatives to stressful and dangerous medical procedures conducted with animals who are not likely to be released. Mote Marine Laboratory is the first facility to have been granted permission from US Fish and Wildlife to conduct basic husbandry training with captive-born manatees, Hugh and Buffett!
What is husbandry training? It is the training of behaviors that make required medical procedures more comfortable for the animal and its handlers. Hugh and Buffett have learned several behaviors that help us take care of them.
The first task was to form an association between food (a primary reinforcer) and a whistle (a secondary reinforcer). Both manatees soon learned that when they heard their whistle, it meant that they were doing something correct and food would be given to them. The second task was to teach each of them to come to their own, individual target. They quickly learned that they could elicit a whistle from their trainers (followed by food) by touching their targets. Once both manatees could discriminate between their individual targets and would reliably track the targets into any area of the tank, even away from each other, it was time to progress to more advanced medical behaviors.