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Manatee Festival

Mender of manatees

In his 13 years at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, veterinarian Mark Lowe has built a close relationship with the manatees there.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 10, 2003

As a light fog hugs the brisk air above the water, Dr. Mark Lowe seeks a captive audience. Easing himself into the spring-fed shallows of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, he knows he doesn't have to go far to find one. Within moments he is crowded by a small army of whiskered snouts eager for the morsels of food he has in his hands.

The interactive ballet between man and manatee has a magical quality to it. Lowe, in his wetsuit, seems dwarfed by the leviathans as they roll and tumble in playlike fashion. And though the weekly feeding ritual by the Homosassa veterinarian is a vital part of their health regimen, it might be difficult to say who benefits most.

"It's one of the great little thrills of my week," said Lowe, 53, who has served as the park's primary veterinarian for the past 13 years.

Each Sunday morning, before visitors arrive, he herds the park's nine captive manatees together to give them vitamin and mineral supplements. In the process, he also makes routine examinations for recent skin wounds and lesions.

For a guy who claims he was rather underwhelmed at seeing his first manatee some 20 years ago, Lowe has become one of the species' strongest advocates.

"I thought they looked like big slugs in the water," Lowe said. But the first time he got in the water with one of the mammoth creatures, he admits, his heart melted.

Not long after the park was bought by the state, Lowe, who is a veterinarian with Midway Animal Hospital, was asked to fill in for its veterinarian, who was leaving. His first patient was Rosie, who has lived in the park's spring-fed environment since the late 1960s.

"I was amazed of how intelligent she really was," Lowe said. "I came away from that experience a little humble and with a lot more respect."

Since then, Lowe has been there for every monumental occasion, including the birth of two babies at the park. Sadly, though, he also has witnessed the savage devastation that manatees often face in the wild.

"I've seen some awfully terrible injuries from boat propellers," he said. "Fortunately, manatees are pretty tough, otherwise we'd have far fewer than we have today."

Though Lowe oversees the care of most of the park's creatures, he admits that 90 percent of his work is done on a volunteer basis, thanks in part to the persuasiveness of his wife, Susan, who works as a park ranger.

"At times our house has looked like a zoo from all the critters we've brought home to nurse back to health," he said. "It's just something we've always liked doing."

Lowe and his family even helped raise two black bear cubs that were brought to the park after being orphaned. Brutus and Biddie now weigh about 100 pounds and are awaiting the completion of new display facilities at the park.

Providing care for wild creatures such as cougars and birds of prey takes a special touch, which Lowe has learned well in his more than 25 years as a veterinarian.

"It's easy to stress them because they aren't used to being handled by humans," Lowe said. "The thing to do is to try to make any treatment you give as short and delicate as possible so as not to disturb that natural wildness."

Lowe is known as a fierce defender of Citrus County's natural habitats and has often spoken out against what he sees as overzealous development in the region.

"It's important that people not take all of this for granted," he said. "We have to be keepers of our environment and wildlife. They're a barometer of what we're doing to the whole planet."

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