Who's Next: Stubby the Manatee at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Dave Ghose

A year ago, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium lost its most beloved animal. The death of Colo—the world's oldest living gorilla, whose unexpected 1956 birth put the Columbus Zoo on the map—left a huge void in the hearts of Central Ohio animal lovers. Can another zoo creature fill that hole? That's no easy task, of course, considering Colo's 60-year legacy. But if Colo fans are looking to hitch their wagons to another inspirational animal, perhaps they should take a closer look at a 1,500-pound sweetheart with an amputated tail swimming after romaine lettuce a little bit northeast of the gorilla exhibit.

Stubby the manatee is no newcomer to Columbus. She's been a part of the zoo's manatee program since 2005, when she and two other females arrived from Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Florida as part of a research project looking at papillomaviruses in manatees. Stubby, who lost a large portion of her tail as a result of a boat-strike injury, has shown impressive resilience during that time. Her papillomavirus turned out to be a minor affliction, but a mysterious skin disease has put her on death's doorstep several times. “I can remember five specific times since 2005 where we had to say goodbye to her,” recalls Becky Ellsworth, the curator of the zoo's Shores region. “We didn't think she was going to make it. And then you come in the next morning, and she just looks at you with those eyes, and you can tell she's fighting for her life. Every single time, she bounced right back and persevered.”

Because of her injuries, Stubby is unlikely to ever return to the wild. Since arriving in Columbus, she's seen 16 other manatees come and go as a result of the Manatee Coast exhibit's rehabilitation mission. She's become comfortable in her surroundings, bonding with her caretakers. She's also developed into a surrogate mother of sorts to several manatee calves who've come through the zoo's program, serving a similar role to the one Colo pioneered in the zoo's gorilla program. “[Stubby] will go right up to them, and she will get underneath them and push them to the surface to help them take a breath,” Ellsworth says. “She stays with them. She shows them where the food is. I've even seen her just shoving food at these little ones, just kind of showing them the ropes.”