Florida Man: Did A Rogue Zoo Veterinarian Commit Malpractice?

Robert Gordon

Since the 15th century, rogue has been used to reference shady or dishonest people. Today, however, folks like Dr. Ray Ball,  lead veterinarian at ZooTampa in Tampa, Florida, use the term endearingly. That is why, in his self-published book released seven months prior to an ongoing federal investigation into veterinarian malpractice at the zoo, he repeatedly describes himself as a “rogue veterinarian.” The book describes a number of stories from Dr. Ball’s twenty-six-year career, including some that at the very least raise questions about his judgment. For instance, there was one time where he and a co-worker stopped at a Hardees drive-thru with a sedated alligator strapped to the back of his truck.

But the real story is not Dr. Ball’s ill-advised retelling of tales from years prior. Today, Dr. Ball makes headlines because at least seven people have filed 45 complaints with federal authorities for alleged veterinarian malpractice resulting in the deaths of manatees and a giraffe. The allegations became public in late October when the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife sent a letter to ZooTampa inquiring about Dr. Ball’s treatment methods. Notably, the attention prompted an almost immediate response from Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) who then penned a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Interior requesting a full investigation. There were four specific aspects to Dr. Ball’s treatment that raised red flags to the federal agency: chest taps, improper in-field amputations, use of experimental drugs or experimental methods of administering drugs, and feeding hay to young or growing manatees or manatees that are physically compromised.

The Tampa Bay Times report details federal authorities concern with Dr. Ball’s administration of a surgical procedure called a “chest tap.” During a “chest tap” the pleural space is pierced with a hollow needle, but if performed wrong it can cause further damage. It is sometimes performed on manatees that have been hit by a boat to release air from their lungs. The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service’s letter describes two manatees that died shortly after Dr. Ball performed “chest taps” on them, noting, “the necropsy report showed perforations in the lungs from chest taps.”

Additional complaints, included Dr. Ball’s alleged practice of performing in-field amputations of manatee’s flippers. The letter notes it is believed that at times the operations were performed without treatment for pain or infection. There was even one instance where a manatee was released with exposed bones. Other allegations included that he prescribed combinations of drugs where some of the drugs were unavailable or he did not have equipment necessary for a procedure, and that he would feed hay to young, growing or injured manatees. Generally, feeding captive manatees hay is a controversial practice that is only done in the limited scenario to control an overweight manatee’s weight.

One of the more unusual incidents that allegedly prompted the federal inquiry occurred when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection filed a report in October 2017 about a manatee that was injured by a hippo in the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The manatee had entered the hippo’s habitat by mistake after Hurricane Irma caused waters in the park to rise. According to the report, Dr. Ball, who worked at both ZooTampa and Homosassa Springs Park, prescribed anti-inflammatories and medically cleared the manatee for return to the manatee enclosure that same day. Significantly, the official reports about the treatment administered are inconsistent with the description of the incident. Indeed, at the time the manatee was found she was lying on her back on the beach area in the hippo’s habitat. It is hard to believe that after such a distressing experience, it was advisable to medically clear her without more attention. In December 2017, she was transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando for further care and rehabilitation.

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In a media briefing this past December, ZooTampa pushed back on the allegations against Dr. Ball. The zoo published a 16-page report that reviewed its manatee care program and provided responses to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services inquiries. The zoo’s president characterized the complaints as a “misunderstanding and miscommunication.” However, upon scrutiny, the letter does not actually exonerate Dr. Ball like the zoo claims. Rather, “Experts ZooTampa asked to review the work of senior veterinarian Ray Ball found that he deviated from standard medical care for manatees and the reasons he cited ‘appear to reflect mere opinions … and are not backed by meaningful scientific data or studies.’”

Today, Dr. Ball is still employed by ZooTampa. However, there is a notable caveat to his practice: he is no longer permitted to treat manatees. It is unclear whether ZooTampa will be penalized by the Department of Fish and Wildlife Services for their role in failing to oversee Dr. Ball’s veterinary work, nor is it clear that anything will come from Rep. Crist and Rep. Castor’s pleas for a more comprehensive investigation. The zoo noted in its December media blitz that it has not felt financial blowback from this story. It continues to be one of the most popular zoos in the country.

For animal advocates this begs the question, what is the appropriate remedy? One important consideration is that 2018 was particularly deadly for Florida manatees. Thus, ZooTampa’s Manatee Critical Care Center is far too important to penalize with a substantial funding cut. At the same time, the zoo’s investigation of Dr. Ball spanned a little more than a month and despite problematic findings, the zoo chose to prioritize public relations over protecting animals entrusted in its care. One way the State could demonstrate its commitment to manatees and similarly situated animals that have or may be subjected to Dr. Ball’s “rogue” practices is by the Attorney General bringing suit under the Animal Welfare Act. The Attorney General could seek an injunction preventing Dr. Ball, and possibly the zoo president and other board members from putting other animals in serious danger. Even if the suit is not successful on the merits, it may prompt a consent decree that accomplishes the same goal. To be sure, this falls far short of justice for the manatees that have already been subjected to malpractice, but it is one way to prevent other animals from being harmed.

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