For a final time this week, Jennifer Parnell cradled an orphaned baby manatee, now about the weight of an NFL linebacker, to feed him a lunchtime bottle.
Jose the calf was moving on — a small victory in Parnell’s career that can be often marked with loss and relentless hours.
At 240 pounds, Jose has been finally weaned off the bottle and is ready for a vegetable diet as SeaWorld Orlando prepares him to be released into the wild in the next year or so.
“It’s pretty special to be a part of that,” Parnell said.
The senior animal rescue specialist remembered when the manatee named after Hurricane Jose was 66 pounds, found beaten upin Fort Myers after Hurricane Irma last year. His mother had lost him or died. Jose was on his own.
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For months, Parnell held him like a wiggling infant and fed him every three hours with a sweet-tasting formula that smelled like a piña colada, full of oil to mimic his mother’s milk. She fed him at 3 a.m. She fed him on Thanksgiving and the routine days in between. The other SeaWorld rescue team members took turns feeding him, too, when Parnell was not there.
Jose survived, hitting milestones, such as weighing 200 pounds in May. Sometimes, he took steps backward as he battled an infection or had a stomach illness.
Hundreds of bottle feedings later, Parnell laid on the rocks Tuesday afternoon while Jose and other baby manatees underwater crowded below her, like begging dogs.
Jose, confident now and bold, popped up because he knew what was next. He looked up at her, waiting.
Parnell gently held his flippers while he slurped his bottle.
Tourists gathered around, pulling out their cellphones to snap pictures. Some had never seen a creature like Jose before.
“It looks like a seal — kinda,” somebody said loudly. “It looks like a dolphin — kinda.”
The important milestone was over in about a minute or so. Jose lingered up at the surface for a moment before he dipped back into the water.
After Parnell was gone, Jose munched on spinach that floated on the surface of the pool like lily pads.
A white scar on his left flipper still showed, a reminder of what he had suffered before his rescue.
The last feeding felt bittersweet, Parnell said afterward.
From now on, Jose’s interaction with humans will be limited to getting weighed and having his blood drawn for medical checks. SeaWorld plans to set Jose free when he reaches 600 pounds.
“He’s becoming more manatee and less our baby,” said Jon Peterson, who manages the park’s animal rescues. “This a very important part of the rehabilitation of baby manatees. There is the time you have to cut that human interaction so he becomes a manatee, so when we return him, he’s not looking for us anymore.”
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