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'Sirens' of the sea lure travelers far inland; Manatees: Endangered animals, thought to be the source of the mermaid legend, find havens in Ohio, at the Columbus and Cincinnati zoos.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is it manatees' blimplike shapes that make them so appealing? Their slow motion and gentle nature? Their sad, endearingly homely faces?

Abigail says she doesn't know, but my daughter turned 12 this fall and she's loved the big water mammals for more than half her life.

We'd been wishing for years to get to Florida so Abby could see manatees in the wild, but we'd never had the time to drive or the money to fly. (We always tried to plan for the fall or winter; Florida's own tourist authorities warned us not to try a summer trip.) Then this spring, fate closed almost all the distance.

Our good luck grew from the manatees' bad luck.

By the early 1990s, U.S. and Florida authorities and wildlife groups had recognized that pollution, habitat loss and collisions with boats had put the manatees in severe danger. They set up seven rehabilitation centers for sick, injured or orphaned animals -- but they had 65 manatees in their care and no room for more.

A group of agencies led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service organized a committee to find homes outside Florida for the animals judged least likely to be able to return to the wild. The committee picked three places to take the manatees: Sea World in San Diego and two zoos in Ohio.

"This is the first time," says Edward J. Maruska, executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo, "that manatees have been let out of Florida since 1910."

Once we learned that manatee exhibits in Columbus and Cincinnati had opened this spring, our other plans went out the window.

Six manatees in Ohio

The Columbus Zoo -- which has added "and Aquarium" to its name to honor the new exhibit -- and the Cincinnati Zoo worked independently to get their manatees. Amanda Kalinich, a spokeswoman for the Columbus Zoo, says the zoo's director emeritus, Jack Hanna, who's made a second career with animal shows on cable TV, involved himself with manatee research at Florida's Busch Gardens early in the decade. Maruska, who's run the Cincinnati Zoo since 1962, says he met several times over the years with officials at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, "and I fell in love with [manatees] there. The director is a good friend of mine" and he invited the Cincinnati Zoo to take part in the program.

Fittingly, the Columbus and Cincinnati exhibits complement each other. Columbus' Manatee Coast, home to Gene, about 24 years old; Hurricane, 16; Dundee, 13; and Comet, about 2, is designed to resemble the 10,000 Islands Wildlife Refuge off Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, with mangrove trees overhanging a passage between islands. A retractable roof lets in light.

Visitors enter near the top of the manatee tank and walk down a sloping boardwalk, watching the manatees underwater through glass walls. Manatees rarely put more than their nostrils above water except during mating season -- and all six Ohio manatees are male. Because manatees are reproducing in the wild, the Fish and Wildlife Service isn't trying to breed them in zoos.

The exhibit also has signs and interactive displays about manatees, their lives and the dangers they face. Visitors can sit in a boat-shaped mini-theater and watch a videotape trip through manatee country, while a 10-minute laser disc also plays continuously on a larger-than-life screen near the main manatee gift shop at the end of the tank. The exhibits don't lay on the guilt as heavily as they might; if someone decided a soft touch was best, he was probably right.

Douglas and Stoneman -- both 4 years old and named for Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, renowned defender of the Everglades -- live in Cincinnati's Manatee Springs, designed to highlight Florida's wildlife and wild places. Visitors walk through a display of Florida plants and animals (including a very live 12 1/2 -foot crocodile and albino alligator) into a large room with the tank and other exhibits. Besides computers and signs, these include a touching area; microscopes that show manatees' inner ears and the red tide parasite that killed 149 manatees in 1996; displays on native Florida animals and plants and species introduced from outside; and bones and fossils of manatees and their relatives.

Manatees spend about a third of their time eating, mostly lettuce, other vegetables and supplements; a Cincinnati manatee facing the glass with a carrot sticking straight out of his mouth gave a momentary impression of Churchill with a cigar. Sailors are supposed to have gotten the idea of mermaids from watching them, which accounts for the name of the order to which the manatees belong, the Sirenians -- although the sailors must have been looking from very far off or been at sea a very long time.

All six Ohio manatees belong to the third of the selection committee's four categories, those unlikely to be released, although Columbus hopes to return Comet, its 2-year-old, to the wild next year. Any that do make it home will make room for others that need care.

Asked how the manatees feel about zoo life, Greg Saunders, who came from Indianapolis' zoo to work with the manatees in Columbus, says, "You know, I think they like it." I hope he's right.

Manatees are an "indicator species," whose well-being, like that of the canaries that coal miners used to take underground with them, indicates when there's trouble ahead. This is one more reason to keep them from the fate of the largest Sirenian, the Stellar's sea cow.

As the Cincinnati Zoo tells the story, the Stellar's sea cow, the only Sirenian that lived in cold water, was discovered in the Bering Sea in 1741. Since its meat was delicious and, like other Sirenians, it had no defenses, by 1768 it had been hunted to extinction.

Exposure to the manatees is likely to make anyone conservation-minded. The Cincinnati Zoo is also home to CREW, the Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife. The center studies endangered plants and animals, collects and preserves genetic material for its Frozen Zoo and Garden and researches new ways of propagating species.

Layouts of zoos

The Columbus Zoo covers 400 acres in suburban Powell, north of Interstate 270 on the east bank of the Scioto River; the tall slides of Wyandot Lake, the big water park next door, serve as a landmark. (Wyandot has discounted admissions for zoo visitors; the Columbus and Cincinnati zoos are free to members of the Baltimore Zoo.) The zoo has four theaters for animal shows (there are several raptor bird shows every day), a touch pool, a children's zoo and two toddler parks, as well as concession stands.

All the paths around the Columbus Zoo total about 2 1/2 miles. Unlike most zoos in this area, it's flat except for its habitats, which makes for easier walking. Its staffing, both professional and volunteer, is extensive, and it's well signed inside and out.

The Cincinnati Zoo, opened in 1875, is the second oldest zoo in America, and it uses its layout and its old buildings for picturesque effect, not always intentional. The city of Cincinnati is supposed to be built, like Rome, on seven hills, and if you tour the zoo on a hot day, as we did, you're likely to feel as if you've climbed all of them. You might try the train or tram rides instead.

Cincinnati also has beguiling bird and animal shows: This summer's star attraction was a troupe of Indian elephants, including a baby named Ganesh who was still nursing. This fit curiously with our original purpose: Manatees aren't directly related to dolphins, seals or walruses, of which Cincinnati also has a pair, but to elephants, aardvarks and hyraxes.

Cincinnati's zoo also has an upscale feel, with seven gift shops, one given over to elegant artifacts. And listen closely, parents: Both zoos have gift shops and kiosks dedicated to the manatees, and the pickings are practical and well-priced. Our jaded family wound up with a 22-inch plush manatee (from Cincinnati; Columbus told us it's been selling out as fast as the big ones come in), earrings, bookmarks and a ring, which helped console Abby for not being able to swim with the manatees. And we're still looking for our "manatee crossing" bumper sticker.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Cincinnati Zoo:

Hours: Grounds are open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. September, April and May; until 8 p.m. June through August; 6 p.m. in October; 5:30 p.m. in November and January through March and until 5 p.m. in December.

Admission: $10 adults, $7 seniors, $4.75 children 2 to 12 and under 2 admitted free.

Columbus Zoo:

Hours: Open daily. Labor Day to Memorial Day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 6 p.m. the remainder of the year.

Admission: $7 adults, $6 for seniors, $4 children 2 to 11 and under 2 admitted free.

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