A new government report accuses the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, where Hugh lived, of failing to handle the situation "as carefully as possible to prevent trauma and physical harm."
In April 2023, a manatee named Hugh died under unknown circumstances at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. Now, after an investigation into the matter, a new report claims that Hugh’s death resulted from “high-intensity sexual behavior” with his brother, Buffett.
As Gizmodo reported, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an autopsy report put together by the Florida Wildlife Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab, which detailed the circumstances of Hugh’s death. The USDA claims that the aquarium failed to protect Hugh during an aggressive sexual interaction with Buffett.
Hugh reportedly suffered “rectal penetration” the morning of the incident after the facility representatives observed the “high-intensity sexual behavior” between the two manatees.
Later that day, aquarium employees collected fecal samples from Hugh that included fresh blood. According to the report, Hugh suffered several traumatic injuries, but the fatal one was a five-and-a-half-inch rip in his colon.
“The sexual behavior continued throughout the day with periods of rest between high intensity interactions and occasional penetration,” the USDA said. “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.”
Hugh was just 38 years old at his death, well short of the 60-year lifespan commonly found among Florida’s manatees. Hugh had been born in captivity and grew up at the Mote Aquarium alongside Buffett for nearly 27 years. It is not uncommon for manatees to experience several months of changed behavior each year — often becoming more sexually aggressive — but the USDA is investigating whether the aquarium had adequately complied with the Animal Welfare Act in this instance.
The Mote Lab released a statement on Facebook shortly after the USDA autopsy report was made public, saying that “Hugh and Buffett engaged in natural, yet increased, mating behavior observed and documented in manatees both in managed care and in the wild. This was the first time such heightened mating behavior was witnessed between the two manatees.”
The statement continues, saying that both manatees were closely observed throughout the day, and each had been observed “initiating and mutually seeking interactions from each other throughout the day.” The Mote Lab claimed there were “no obvious signs of discomfort or distress such as listing, crunching, or active avoidance that would have triggered a need for intervention.”
Rather than physically separating the manatees, the Mote Lab claimed they followed veterinarians’ advice and chose to distract the two instead, as separating them had previously caused “undue anxiety and negative effects” in both Hugh and Buffett.
The Mote Lab concluded by touting that it has always “prided itself in providing the utmost care for all of its animals” and noting that a week prior to the incident, the USDA performed an annual inspection of the facility and recognized the aquarium’s staff for the high quality of care it provided its animals with.
“The inspector even noted that he would love to show our facility as a gold standard to other facilities,” the statement reads.
The situation is made all the more tragic when considering conservationists’ concerns about the Florida manatee population. As CNN reported in 2017, the species was once facing a real risk of extinction back in the 1970s. But after a “dramatic turnaround” in the following decades, Florida’s manatees were taken off the endangered species list.
And while this may have seemed like good news at the time, removing a species from the endangered list comes with its own problems. Some estimates say that from 2017 to 2019, the Florida manatee population decreased by roughly six percent annually. Conservationists have argued that manatees should not have been removed from the endangered list in the first place and that, in doing so, the population has been subjected to several factors that have caused its decline.
These factors include a loss of seagrass beds along the state’s coast, pollution from leaking septic tanks, development, and fertilizer runoff. There were several efforts from Florida agencies and conservation groups to help the manatee population, including tossing tons of lettuce into the ocean to substitute the lost seagrass, but these solutions were short-term at best.
With Florida’s manatee population as sensitive as it is, Hugh’s death, though in captivity, is a blow to those working to help them survive.
After reading about the death of this beloved manatee, learn all about the tragic life of Tilikum, SeaWorld’s infamous killer whale. Then, read up on some of history’s most famous mermaid sightings — which may have just been manatees.