Thursday marked the first day of the year a manatee named Roomba will spend in the wild.

Roomba was rescued from King's Bay after a boat strike in October 2018. He first received medical care at SeaWorld Orlando, and was transferred to ZooTampa (formerly Lowry Park Zoo) about a month ago.

"He had gotten through the critical-acute part of his care, so he came to us for continued monitoring — so he was actually in pretty good shape when he came to us," said Lauren Smith, ZooTampa's lead veterinarian for manatee care.

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A large group of ZooTampa and FWC staff members and volunteers lifted Roomba into the water in a special sling.

"He was a fall rescue — a pretty bad boat strike," Smith said of Roomba after his release from the boat ramp at Pete's Pier in Crystal River on Thursday. "When they come in they’re in such bad condition, and then you see them through their care and get them back out here — that’s what we’re here for, the reason we exist."

Boaters and others out on the water are often the first to spot manatees in distress, Smith said.

"The cases that we receive — it’s because somebody out on the water noticed a problem and reported it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission," she continued. "It’s important that they report that so FWC can respond. Quick response is key."

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Lauren Smith, lead manatee veterinarian at ZooTampa, spoke to the media after the release of Roomba, a rehabilitated manatee, into King's Bay on Thursday.

Smith has been an associate veterinarian at ZooTampa since 2015, and began overseeing the zoo's manatee rescue and rehabilitation program in November 2018 after senior veterinarian Ray Ball came under scrutiny from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service during a re-accreditation process.

Some of the questions raised by U.S. Fish and Wildlife concerned Ball's care of a longtime resident manatee at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Lorelei, who died in April. The zoo's investigation cleared Ball of wrongdoing, but his oversight of the manatee program was not restored, according to statements from ZooTampa, although ZooTampa's website does not reflect any changes to his duties or position or Smith's.

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A crowd of bystanders and members of the media gathered around the boat ramp at Pete's Pier in Crystal River to watch Roomba's release.

As ZooTampa's lead manatee vet, Smith oversees the recently-reopened David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center. The facility was closed for about a year for upgrades, which included "a complex energy efficient filtration system that supports the zoo’s ability to provide lifesaving support for severely injured and sickened manatees," according to a public letter from ZooTampa president and CEO Joe Couceiro on the zoo's website. Roomba was one of the first four manatees to receive care in the upgraded facility.

FWC's wildlife alert toll-free number is 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922). For more information, visit

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Contact Chronicle reporter Carly Zervis at or 352-564-2925.

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