Oh, the Hugh manatee. A long-time fixture at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, the 38-year-old manatee named Hugh died under unknown circumstances back in April. This week, new, graphic details about his demise are pitting federal agencies against the Florida aquarium about how best to preserve the vulnerable species.
After Hugh’s death in April, the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab started an animal autopsy on the creature. As first reported by the local ABC affiliate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the autopsy report and claimed the aquarium failed to protect Hugh during an aggressive sexual interaction with his brother, Buffett.
ABC 7’s report further quotes the USDA claiming that facility representatives observed “high intensity sexual behavior” between the two marine mammals. Hugh experienced “rectal penetration” that morning of the incident, and employees later collected fecal samples from Hugh that included fresh blood. Hugh reportedly died due to a 14.5-centimeter rip in his colon, alongside other traumatic injuries.
“The sexual behavior continued throughout the day with periods of rest between high intensity interactions and occasional penetration,” according to the USDA quoted by ABC 7. “At approximately 5:15 pm, the larger male was observed penetrating the smaller male again. When the larger male swam away, the smaller male was seen unresponsive at the bottom of the pool.”
Gizmodo reached out to the USDA for a full statement on the allegations against the Mote aquarium. Richard Bell, a spokesperson for the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told us “we take all complaints seriously and look into the allegations to determine whether there are any Animal Welfare Act noncompliances that need to be addressed.”
Hugh was born in captivity and lived at the Mote with his brother Buffett for close to 27 years. The Florida variety of manatees normally live up to 60 years, and they usually experience about several months of changed behavior, including a good deal more friskiness, each year. This period can start in Spring and extend to around September.
After news of the report picked up steam earlier this week, the Mote lab released a statement on Wednesday describing Hugh’s death. The aquarium revised its earlier release and stated the manatee had “engaged in natural, yet increased mating behavior observed and documented in manatees both in managed care and in the wild.” The report further claims this was the first time staff witnessed mating behavior between Hugh and his brother, but there was no sign of “discomfort or distress.”
Mote claimed the two were mutually seeking each other’s attention throughout the day. Lab veterinarians tried to distract the pair instead of separating them in order to avoid “undue anxiety” from being separated.
Despite the strange circumstances surrounding Hugh’s death, any loss of a Florida manatee is a travesty. Conservationists have consistently sounded the alarm about the species dying off due to loss of food and habitat. This year, several major conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the agency has failed to protect the manatee populations. Wildlife officials have taken to mass lettuce feedings in order to preserve the mammals after massive seagrass loss throughout the Caribbean.