Biologists thought then that orphaned calves reared in captivity would never acquire the skills needed to survive in the wild. So they sent them off together for years of adventure. First stop: SeaWorld in San Diego. Next, the pair moved to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, where they wowed visitors for four years. It was there that Lil Joe bulked up to a weight of 1,950 pounds, or nearly a ton.
In 2009, the two were shipped to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla., and introduced to the kinds of river plants that manatees ordinarily eat. The science of manatee care had evolved as Slip and Lil Joe grew, and biologists at that point were confident the two could be released.
So on Feb. 15, 2010, they were set free at Blue Spring, just off the St. Johns River near Orange City, Fla., where the relatively warm spring water attracts hundreds of manatees each winter. The two apparently had had enough of each other and went their separate ways.
Lil Joe turned up a few months later farther north in the St. Johns, stunned by cold weather. He was rescued, rehabbed and put back into the river several months after that. Then, as winter approached last year, he slipped out of his radio-tracking belt and disappeared. Lil Joe was feared dead.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 4 of this year, Slip was hauled from Crescent Lake, which connects to the St. Johns River near Palatka, Fla. Stressed by cold, he was taken back to SeaWorld Orlando.
And in August, an unknown manatee appeared in the Little Econlockhatchee River in east Orange County, a highly unusual place for a sea cow to go.
A few weeks later, a wildlife volunteer spotted an “R 5” brand on the animal’s back, confirming it was Lil Joe. (Slip is “R 1.”) State biologists suspected that the Little Econ, no longer swollen from early summer rains, had trapped Lil Joe.