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October 28, 2012

In SeaWorld rehab, manatee Lil Joe reunites with old pal

ORLANDO, Fla. — Lil Joe the manatee needs an agent for the unfolding story of his life, which continues to amaze and now includes an unexpected reunion with an old pal.

Lil Joe was plucked recently from a shallow river in east Orange County, Fla., where he had been marooned and starving for weeks. He was so dehydrated and underweight that the knobs and recesses of his skull were strikingly visible, his ribs were bulging and the loose skin of his concave belly was bunched up.

He was taken back to SeaWorld Orlando, where he had lived as an orphaned newborn, and was reunited with Slip, his longtime aquarium mate. The two manatees, who first met nearly 20 years ago, were kindred spirits during a years-long tour of the nation before they were set free together a little more than two years ago in the same Central Florida spring.

Now, when they aren’t performing balletic corkscrews in their SeaWorld tank, the reconnected manatees are between them devouring 200 heads of restaurant-grade romaine lettuce each day. And if they aren’t thinking about it as humans might, they might at least be feeling a primal tug that amounts to: “What’s next?”

Lil Joe was first rescued from the Halifax River near Daytona Beach, Fla., on July 30, 1989, weeks old and weighing 42 pounds. With his mother presumed dead, Lil Joe would gain fans at SeaWorld as a pudgy, bottle-raised orphan even fed once by then-President George H.W. Bush.

Slip, named after the marina space where boats dock, was born at SeaWorld on Nov. 22, 1991. His mother, Marina, had been rescued in 1979 and was SeaWorld’s first bottled-raised calf. She died three weeks later of birth-related complications, so Slip, like Lil Joe, hardly knew his mom.

The two orphans grew close, perhaps not by choice but as a result of the protocols for rearing captive members of the endangered species.

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