Stubby the Manatee: Surrogate Mother to Orphaned Calves at Columbus Zoo

Stubby, a female manatee at the Columbus Zoo, has cared for dozens of orphaned manatees despite losing 70% of her tail in a 2005 boat strike. She currently guides two young males, Mr. Dobak and Nighthawk, teaching them essential survival skills.

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Nitish Verma
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Stubby the Manatee: Surrogate Mother to Orphaned Calves at Columbus Zoo

Stubby the Manatee: Surrogate Mother to Orphaned Calves at Columbus Zoo

Stubby, a female manatee at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, has become a surrogate mother to dozens of orphaned baby manatees over the past two decades. Despite losing 70% of her tail in a boat strike in 2005, Stubby has dedicated her life to nurturing and guiding young manatees, teaching them essential skills for survival.

Through her affiliation with the Manatee Rescue Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP), the Columbus Zoo serves as a second-stage rehabilitation facility for injured manatees. Stubby's current charges include two young males, Mr. Dobak and Nighthawk, who arrived at the zoo in the fall of 2023 from Charlotte County, Florida.

Dan Nellis, a manatee keeper at the Columbus Zoo, praised Stubby's exceptional care, stating, "Stubby is a leader in our Manatee Coast and makes our job easier with her exceptional guidance in caring for the other manatees." Stubby's nurturing instincts come naturally, as she has never been trained for this role.

Manatees are typically solitary creatures, and orphaned calves are usually left to fend for themselves in the wild. Female manatees do not attack other manatees or humans that approach their young; instead, they swim between the intruder and their offspring to protect them. Manatee calves nurse at birth and begin eating plants a few weeks later, staying with their mothers for one to two years.

"They follow Stubby's cues, eating when she eats and resting when she rests. They're learning her routine and will soon become big, strong, and confident males," said Becky Ellsworth, curator of the Shores and Aquarium at the Columbus Zoo. This Mother's Day, Stubby will spend her day with Mr. Dobak and Nighthawk, who are still shy but learning from her guidance.

Mr. Dobak and Nighthawk are expected to return to Florida in the future to live their lives as wild animals. Although some animal lovers worry that Stubby will be sad when they leave, zoo officials believe she will feel the opposite. "When the orphans leave, they're ready, and so is Stubby. She's never been trained to do this; she just does it," said Ellsworth.

Every five years, Stubby is evaluated to see if she is ready to return to Florida, but zoo officials believe it is unlikely her condition will change due to the severity of her injury. Instead, Stubby continues to make a profound impact on the lives of orphaned manatees, ensuring they receive the care and guidance needed to thrive in the wild.

Key Takeaways

  • Stubby, a female manatee, has cared for dozens of orphaned manatees at the Columbus Zoo.
  • Despite losing 70% of her tail, Stubby has dedicated her life to nurturing and guiding young manatees.
  • Stubby's current charges are two young males, Mr. Dobak and Nighthawk, who arrived at the zoo in 2023.
  • Stubby's nurturing instincts are natural, and she has never been trained for her surrogate mother role.
  • Stubby will continue to care for orphaned manatees, ensuring they receive the care needed to thrive in the wild.