Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Ray Ball, an Eckerd faculty member since 2017, has worked with manatees for about 10 years. Beginning in 2018, The Tampa Bay Times published a series of articles about allegations of malpractice against Ball.
“I had no concerns that anything I had done wasn't sanctioned by a lot of other people, ZooTampa, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC), US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS),” Ball said.
Ball’s two interviews with The Current were the first time he responded to these allegations to a news organization. He said it was unprofessional to comment to the media at the time, but now it is appropriate to discuss the matter after the complaints were dismissed.
“When all this happens, I just kind of sit tight, but let that process take care of itself because there's nothing to hide,” Ball said.
With 45 complaints from ZooTampa staff members, accusations included that Ball was responsible for the deaths of manatees and giraffes due to untraditional diet changes and improper in-field amputations, among other practices.
ZooTampa’s Senior Director of Communications and External Affairs Sandra Torres declined to comment, citing their human resources policy that they do not publicly comment on former employees.
According to Ball, the US Fish and Wildlife Services filed these complaints to the State Board of Veterinary Medicine, and it was ultimately dismissed after an investigation in March 2019.
Ball denies all of the allegations and has refused to read any of the reports because he does not want to see them. He claims that what he did may have been untraditional, but he always had the animal’s best interest at heart.
Public records from the FWC include 77 pages of documents including emails, photographs and detailed case reviews on animals that Ball worked on. Former colleagues at ZooTampa, eight in total, logged complaints against his veterinary performance.
Ball said a lot of the accusations were sensationalized in the news. One idea that The Tampa Bay Times reported is that he calls himself a “rogue” veterinarian in his book, “Omen of the Aardvark, Trials and Tribulations of a Rogue Zoo Veterinarian.”
“I have embraced that,” Ball said. “There's a lot of reasons. One of the biggest ones actually is, I think, my transparency. Medical notes were circulated every day. Everyone, director, curator, keepers, they saw everything that we did, they saw everything that we thought. I'm a rogue because I seek to break down the certain antagonism that exists between medical staff and either keeper staff or biologists.”
Some scientists may call his practices unorthodox, adding to his rogue persona. International Visiting Research Scholar at Mote Marine Laboratory Nicola Erdsack started working with Ball in 2016, and he was one of her co-mentors. Erdsack is a marine mammal physiologist and has been working with manatees and other marine mammals in captivity.
“I think [Ball]’s a very good veterinarian. And yeah, he's a little bit unconventional. And that's probably his major problem. Many of these things he was accused of I knew about. Of course, many of them were a long time before I even knew him,” Erdsack said.
Mote Marine Laboratory Senior Biologist for Manatee Research Sheri Barton and Staff Biologist Jennifer Johnson declined to comment.
Ball said he is a rogue veterinarian, but only in the sense that he does what he can to help the animals, even if it is not in the traditional way they are cared for.
“I don't like to overtreat animals,” Ball said. “I don’t like overhandling them. If getting a manatee back out into the wild in 150 days versus 250 days, if that’s a rogue endeavor, then I’m a rogue.”
Eckerd Class of 2020 alumna Brooke Foster worked on a senior project with Ball during the 2019-2020 school year and took his Animal Nutrition class. Having worked with Ball and with friends that have interned at ZooTampa, she was well aware of the reports online.
“He's more of a unique vet,” Foster said. “He was kind of more like, ‘Let's see what these animals would do in the wild and how nature takes its course.’ And some people with manatees were like, ‘This is not how this works, we need to baby them, we need to love them.
Foster said she enjoyed taking a class and doing research with him.
“There’s a lot of debate at ZooTampa, there were people that loved Dr. Ball and there were people that didn’t like him,” Foster said.
She believes Ball that he had the animals’ best interests in mind, even if he practices more hands-off compared to other veterinarians.
“He's kind of a little more not as involved, it was a little weird considering a veterinarian is supposed to be there all the time,” Foster said. “These are wild animals, if we don't have to intervene and put them under all that stress of people holding them or putting them under anesthesia, then we don't have to or we don’t want to. I feel like I understand both sides.”
Once the investigation of Ball became more public, he brought it up in his classes and said he was willing to answer any questions students had.
“He was very understanding that this was happening and not trying to hide it,” Foster said. “So I thought that was also a very positive thing that he wasn't like, ‘Oh no’, brush it under the rug kind of thing. He made a point to tell us about it in class before class even started.”
Ball said he brought it up in class to be transparent with his students, but also believed misconduct allegations should not be discussed in the classroom to stay professional.
“I wanted to let them know that there were some things going on,” Ball said. “I don't want to have their trust and their confidence that I'm working so hard to establish undermined by people who have ulterior motives and agendas.”
Many in the veterinary field disagree over whether it is better to hold an animal in captivity to heal for long periods of time or to let it go back into the wild so it does not become dependent on human care. Ball prefers in-field amputations, where manatee flippers are amputated in the wild and the animal is released right away.
“I know that was very controversial and very upsetting to people, but out of all the medical interventions that have been done in manatees, there's only one that I know of that actually has a 100% success rate. And that's the field amputation,” Ball said.
In one complaint filed with the FWC about Ball’s work, Florida Manatee Recovery Lead Terri Calleson cites the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership, a collaborative agency that unites many organizations that care for manatees throughout the United States under a single affiliation.
According to the documents, the MRP claims a field amputation is appropriate only “when the limb is barely attached, the surrounding tissue is already deemed necrotic and treatment such as analgesia and antibiotics are not required.”
Calleson claims in the complaint that none of the three cases in which Ball performed field amputations fit this criteria, also describing how fresh tissue, meaning tissue under the skin, was exposed, which can give the manatee a secondary infection. She would not respond for comment personally, redirecting to other people within the US Fish and Wildlife, who never responded for comment.
Ball said that the MRP did not have these guidelines established when the amputations were performed. No date was provided from the complaint document.
He also argues that field amputations are a way to limit the amount of time an animal has to spend outside of its natural habitat.
“Bringing it into captivity, where it goes three weeks without eating, and we have to pin it down to give them fluids and things like that, if I can prevent that from happening, then you can call me a rogue,” Ball said.
“An exposed bone is no different than an exposed piece of flesh in a manatee,” Ball said. “Did they have a little bit of bleeding? There's a wound, there's a little bit of blood [...] No manatee was ever at any risk of bleeding to death.”
Erdsack was not present for the in-field amputations, but she heard firsthand from Ball about a case. She said that for some of the cases, it would have been very difficult to get a rescue team to the manatee’s location and manatees are under a lot of stress during rescues, so Ball took all of this into account. She also said she recognizes that both approaches of in-field amputations and amputations in a rehabilitation center have pros and cons. She knows of cases of wild manatees that have survived with only one pectoral flipper and that their tissue heals pretty fast.
“I think this is absolutely a reasonable decision, to spare the animal this long rescue procedure and suffering for hours or maybe even days, and to just give it a try right there,” Erdsack said.
Many specific cases are listed on 11 pages of the FWC public records documents, from 2010 to 2017. Maggie, a manatee from a case in 2012, is mentioned often in The Tampa Bay Times articles. According to the FWC documents, the manatee had negative buoyancy issues, meaning she had trouble floating properly in the water.
A chest tap is a procedure during which a needle is injected into the lung to remove the pressure or air trapped there. After an exploratory chest tap on Maggie, Ball said that he discussed the euthanization with Andy Garrett, FWC Manatee Rescue Coordinator, and Virginia Edmonds, the Animal Care Manager of Florida Mammals at ZooTampa, and they both agreed to euthanize the animal.
Maggie was euthanized, but afterward Garrett and Edmonds claimed to USFWS’ North Florida Ecological Services Office, according to the FWC documents, that Ball never talked to them about this case, and the necropsy “did not confirm [the] animal’s condition was terminal.”
Ball said that it is hard for him to remember specific cases, but he was shocked to hear that specific allegation.
“I've never euthanized an animal where I wasn't given permission,” Ball said. “Trying to suggest that I came in and killed an animal, in stealth mode or something like that, is absolutely maddening.”
Another case involved a manatee named Dana, first rescued on May 8, 2012 with evidence of a boat strike and a possible punctured lung. After giving birth to a stillborn calf a few days later at the manatee hospital, she was given treatment, including fluids without food consumption for a week.
Ball conducted a chest tap on Dana and, according to the FWC documents, no radiographs were taken, so multiple injections were needed to properly perform the procedure. A radiograph is an image similar to an x-ray that helps veterinarians visualize what is happening inside the animal.
Without a radiograph, doctors cannot see what is happening in the animal, which is why more than one injection was made with a needle to perform the chest tap, according to FWC documents. Also according to the documents, Ball did not take any measures to prevent outside bacteria from entering the chest cavity through the chest tap injection sites, and two more chest taps were performed before Dana was able to submerge properly.
An abscess then appeared on her back, and as it got larger she started to eat less. She received no antibiotics for 10 days. The abscesses were cleaned out daily, but eventually Dana stopped eating and had to be tubed fluids.
Other veterinarians recommended oral medication, so Ball suggested a drug called Exenel. This is not meant to be given orally to animals, according to the producer of the drug, Pfizer, as stated in the FWC documents on page 17. The drug is designed to be injected, and Pfizer claimed in an email to former ZooTampa Animal Care Professional Jennifer Galbraith that it would be illegal to administer it orally.
Galbraith did not respond for comment.
When challenged by the other veterinarians, Ball said, “I’m breaking new ground,” and gave the drug to Dana orally anyway according to the documents.
Ball said that there are no approved drugs for manatees since scientists still do not know much about their physiology; they’re not like dogs or cats. He also said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives veterinarians flexibility to use their best judgment in terms of drugs.
“We use all of our drugs to the best that we're thinking,” Ball said. “I don't recall the details, but to suggest that was the cause of the demise of that animal kind of shows you the amateurish approach to the health and welfare of these animals. That's a desperate measure to discredit somebody.”
Dana started breathing abnormally and could not sustain herself in the water. She was still not eating and was continually given fluids and the drug orally. It was July 2012 at this point.
After 27 days of only fluids, Ball used a grain mixture to tube feed her some nutrition. Four days later, on July 14, Dana died.
Dana’s necropsy showed that an infection occurred in her lung. According to the FWC documents on page 16, so much infected material was removed from her lung that some veterinarians thought she acquired a lot of the infection in the hospital.
The document states: “This leads one to believe that if proper veterinary procedure had been followed then possibly Dana might have been saved.”
Erdsack supported Ball’s claim that not many drugs are approved for manatees.
“Since there is no on-label use for drugs specifically for manatees, of course, there is also no off-label use, and if you don't try new approaches and new medication, there's just no way to improve treatment over time,” Erdsack said.
Another example is a manatee named Buoyancy who had buoyancy issues because of a boat strike. Ball did a chest tap during which the needle hit her lung and was left there.
In one of the FWC documents, Edmonds said that blood and air from the lungs comes through the syringe when the needle punctures the lung. Afterward, Buoyancy filled with air even more and had even more buoyancy issues before she died.
“I don't remember the exact cases like that, but that is not unusual,” Ball said. “You can look at the catastrophic injuries, that chest tap had no bearing on whether they survived or not, this had nothing to do with why this animal was lost.”
Hay Diets: Giraffes
Another controversy covered in The Tampa Bay Times articles is putting animals in captivity on hay diets. This was the case for manatees and giraffes that Ball has worked with. Ball said he has been the veterinary advisor for giraffes for the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians for 20 years.
“I’m the veterinary advisor for really North America, one of two, and I consult on giraffe cases even still today,” Ball said.
Ball said that when he worked at Busch Gardens before ZooTampa, he was trying to develop a new diet for giraffes in captivity since they have a lot of health issues. They are like cows in that chewing is good for them, and increasing their fiber helps with some of the health issues. So, providing more hay is good for them.
Ball said that giraffes cannot exist entirely on hay, so he subsidized the diet with pellets. Ball said that the people that accused him used the giraffe cases against him, adding to the FWC complaints.
“If you notice the sequence of all this, when did that come in? Go back and think about this. There's accusations about manatees, right, there's a few of those. My speculation is that the zoo didn't dismiss me, so let's throw another accusation out. Let's look at giraffes. So that's where I think that came from,” Ball said.
In one of the FWC documents, Tanya Ward, one of ZooTampa’s employees and a keeper for the Florida Mammals Department, said Ball changed the diets of several animals, including giraffes, without consulting a nutritionist. She said the switch from the “necessary grain to a diet that consisted of browse and hay” may have been the cause of five giraffe deaths.
Ward did not respond to emails for comment.
According to Ball, the deaths of the giraffes were not the result of changing their diets. He would not comment about why the giraffes died because he said it was confidential. Ball said that medical records should not be broadcasted for animals for similar reasons that human medical records are not shared.
“You can say the same thing about the manatee [records], too. So, for those records to be disseminated, that is actually inappropriate,” Ball said.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Associations’ (AVMA) principles of veterinary medical ethics, their policy states veterinary medical records are confidential.
“It must not be released except as required or allowed by law, or by consent of the owner of the patient,” AVMA said in that document.
Ball claimed that the hay diets have reduced the gastrointestinal parasites common in giraffes in the southeastern United States.
“There are a lot of healthy, happy giraffes because of the feeding,” Ball said. “Now, some people will argue that you changed diet too fast and things like that. Honestly, that's a matter of opinion. I’ve done this for a long time, a lot of people will take two weeks to put an animal on a diet. Sometimes, you can do three to five days. It's very individual.”
Many peer-reviewed research articles show that increased hay diets in giraffes have improved the health and welfare of some giraffes, including one article published in Zoo Biology in 2018 by Michael Monson et. al that studied Masai giraffes at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Hay Diets: Manatees
For manatees, Ball said using hay diets could be a way to control weight and diabetes. He said that when manatees first come into rehabilitation, they need a high-energy food with a little extra protein for healing, so romaine lettuce is perfect for them in the beginning of their recovery.
But, Ball said that romaine is not necessary for manatees in long-term captivity. Manatees become obese, sometimes developing type two diabetes. Since their metabolic rates are lower than other mammals, according to Ball, they do not burn through their food as quickly as other animals, and they’re in captivity in a confined space not using a lot of energy.
“Food [romaine] just kind of falls down from the heavens [for the manatees] that’s high energy, high fat,” Ball said.
After putting the manatees on the hay diets, Ball said they were able to trim down the weight of the manatees and reverse the diabetes. But, the animals had secondary effects of renal failure and cardiac measures.
“So, some of those big, old, fat manatees will die, but they died of renal disease, cardiac disease, all complications of diabetes. They actually, I think, lived longer because they were eating the hay,” Ball said.
Erdsack agrees that hay diets are a valid approach to feed captive manatees, having worked with Ball. Since hay diets provide an option closer to natural manatee diet with less sugar, and it is cheaper than lettuce, it is overall beneficial for both the manatees and keepers.
“One issue was the feeding of hay to manatees, which I think is a really great thing,” Erdsack said.
An article from the Citrus County Chronicle published in 2018 described the death of a manatee named Lorelei at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The documents provided by this article also include a detailed account from ZooTampa of the accusations against Ball and their responses.
According to those documents, although hay feeding has been hypothesized to cause issues in manatees like decreased water intake, poor digestion and changes in intestinal bacteria, since it is such a new approach, it is currently being experimented with and was not necessarily considered wrong.
The necropsy provided in the article showed that Lorelei’s cecum, one of the organs in the digestive tract of manatees, was very enlarged with 30 liters of undigested material, the majority of which appeared to be hay. Most manatees have between one and four liters of partially digested material in their cecum.
“There was such a sentiment that was adamantly opposed to my feeding hay for the manatees,” Ball said. “So when this manatee died, they had already made up their minds that this animal actually had to have an obstruction. That was the cause of death and the cause of death is because Ray gave them hay, so there was a bias.”
Ball said that the hay diet did not cause any of the manatee’s deaths. For Lorelei, Ball said that she died because she had renal disease and cardiac disease.
“That was ignored at the top of the necropsy, to be quite frank, I actually had to find those. So the cause of death was not related to the hay whatsoever,” Ball said.
Ball said he walked to the front of the table during the necropsy and examined the heart, which he described as “like a dishrag”, likely due to heart failure. The diabetes can cause lasting health effects for the animals, and Ball said these health effects are the reason the manatees died, not the hay.
Ball discussed the accusations toward him about another manatee that had died after being on the hay diet.
“That's just absolutely wrong,” Ball said. “The veterinarian has an agenda. Pure and simple. There have been two manatees that we have lost. When the first one was gone, they were looking for exactly that. I mean, they went through every centimeter of this animal’s GI [gastrointestinal] tract, and they didn’t find it.”
Overall, Ball blames the media for not telling the whole story.
“They're exaggerating them to make a point,” Ball said. “And they're only telling half the story. For the stories to come out with only half the people involved, that's only half the story. So, that's either irresponsible journalism, or there's a bias. Why is there a bias? Perhaps because there is an agenda.”
ZooTampa began an in-depth review of Ball in November 2018, but eventually determined that none of Ball’s practices warranted his dismissal from the zoo. They ensured the public and the FWC through press releases that they were fully committed to its mission in caring for manatees. ZooTampa allowed Ball to return to caring for zoo animals, except for manatees.
In May 2019, Ball left ZooTampa to pursue academic opportunities after traveling in Europe.
“At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. I'm where I want to be. They’ve gotten what they want which was to get me out of the zoo, to be honest,” Ball said.
He began teaching at Eckerd as a visiting assistant professor in fall 2017. In this spring semester 2021, he will be a biology instructor, according to Ball.
“I'd actually been looking at a career change for the last several years,” Ball said. “The opportunity came up, and I just thought it was time to go...I think that veterinarians are good teachers. And to me that's a natural progression...I've always loved the teaching component.”
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Suzan Harrison said Ball was hired based on recommendations from faculty in biology and marine science.
“Ball was cleared of the accusations at ZooTampa and has been very effective in his teaching at Eckerd,” Harrison said.
Discipline Coordinator for Biology and Professor of Biology Steve Denison declined to comment. Christine Fontaine, volunteer coordinator at the FWC’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab, and the lab itself also declined to comment.
Today, Ball has his veterinary license and practices. He does surgery at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), consults for Nature’s Classroom in Hillsborough County with the public school system and has started working again with Florida panthers with the FWC, a project he has worked on before.
He has written a number of self-published works including his memoir, “Omen of the Aardvark,” some peer-reviewed journal articles and a pamphlet entitled “Panther’s Pause: Reflections on the great cat of Florida.”
Ball then discussed the many contrasting opinions within veterinary medicine.
“You could go get a dozen veterinarians or you can probably go get a dozen journalists, and you would get 20 different opinions on a topic. I think that's just human nature, and that's fine. A small party of my colleagues didn't find anything inappropriate done,” Ball said.
In certain situations, Erdsack appreciates and thinks it is good when doctors decide on a treatment that they consider to be more helpful for the animal than what is in the guidelines, just like human doctors do sometimes. She’s still in contact with Ball.
“Still when you search his name these things are the first ones that show up, so that’s really bad, and I'm really sorry for this,” Erdsack said.
For Ball, he claims he connects well with Eckerd’s “ThinkOutside” mantra.
“Thinking outside, there are so many things that that means. The physical environment is one, but, outside the box, outside the mythology and the dogma that exist, there is a tremendous amount of that,” Ball said. “So, to be able to do that and not worry that someone's going to come after your livelihood, your license to practice, how much more of a personal vendetta can you generate against someone? I look forward to being here for a while and engaging and bringing what I do and how I do it to anyone who wants to listen to it."