Program alumna plays key role in manatee group

 By Sarah Carey

Katie Tripp bottle feeds a manatee.

Dr. Katie Tripp bottle feeds a manatee named Twiggy at the Wildtracks Rehabilitation Facility in Sarteneja, Belize. (Photo by Lynda Green)

When Pennsylvania native Katie Tripp was 3 years old, her mother took her to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where she couldn’t stop talking about “the seals that blew bubbles with their noses.” At 11, she discovered manatees through a PBS special and met her first sea cow – a creature named Fathom that was being treated for a watercraft injury at Sea World Orlando — during a family trip to Florida that same year.

“I told my mother, ‘I want to keep this from happening,’” said Tripp, 31, who received her Ph.D. from the UFCVM in 2008. “I learned about Save the Manatee Club that summer and became a member,” Tripp said.

Immediately after defending her thesis, Tripp went to work at the job she holds today as director of science and conservation for Save the Manatee Club (SMC). Wikipedia describes the organization, cofounded by former Florida governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham and singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett in 1981, as the world’s largest manatee conservation group.

But Tripp’s passion for helping manatees is deeply rooted in her childhood. Her mother, a teacher, had a keen interest in biology, nature and travel and actively encouraged Tripp’s interests. The summer after her first Florida trip, Tripp wrote letters to state and federal governmental leaders regarding manatee protection. She collected S & H Green Stamps for SMC to use to buy research equipment for state manatee programs. She discovered Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park that summer and asked about volunteering, but was told she was too young. The next year, she returned with a portfolio of letters and projects she had undertaken to help manatees. Young Katie’s effort’s paid off: At the age of 12, she became the youngest volunteer in the manatee program.

“How could they turn me away?” she said. “I remember the head of wildlife care stopping by to quiz me on the manatees a day or so after I started. I already knew all of their names and how to identify them. Back in Pennsylvania, I gave educational programs at my school and got our environmental club involved in manatee and other ocean-related issues.”

From that point on, Tripp has focused her life and career around her passion for manatees. She attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, receiving a bachelor’s degree in marine science in 2003. She volunteered for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory, which is located on the Eckerd campus.

The experience led to a job and to the opportunity to attend UF.

Dr. Katie Tripp reads a manatee story book to children at a school in Jamaica in 2011.

Dr. Katie Tripp reads a manatee story book to children at the Little Bay school on Jamaica’s west coast in March 2011. She delivered educational materials and school supplies, read “Sam the Sea Cow,” and taught the children about manatees. (Photo by Brendan Robinson)

“A relationship was developing between FWC and UF, and I was asked to come to UF to continue the research I’d been doing at FWC,” Tripp said. She arrived in 2004, becoming one of the first students in the Aquatic Animal Health program that was developing.

“I always had equal interests in science and policy/management, so since my Ph.D. was very laboratory and research oriented, I sought other opportunities to pursue my policy interests,” Tripp said. She completed a certificate program in Water Resources Policy and Management through UF’s College of Engineering, took a consulting job with the South Florida Water Management District and responded to an email sent by Dr. Roger Reep, professor of physiological sciences at the UF CVM, seeking a student member of Save the Manatee Club’s board of directors.

She applied, was accepted and became the group’s first student member.

“Dr. Reep’s email inquiry certainly was a major turning point in my professional development,” Tripp said. “He is still a mentor for me; someone to whom I send grant applications and journal manuscripts for review before submitting them. Last spring I taped a lecture for an online course he helped develop.”

Reep said the course, called Manatee Health and Conservation, was delivered last summer and would be offered every summer in the future. The course includes lectures from approximately 20 experts from around the U.S.

“It’s another example of how we at UF partner with others to create something that benefits everyone,” he said.

Tripp says there is synergy between the SMC and the Aquatic Animal Health program, with the two groups working together on legislative issues and other projects.

“Dr. Mike Walsh (assistant director of the AAH program) and I have recently discussed the possibility of continuing to use the assays I validated in my UF research program to measure progesterone in female manatees as a measure for pregnancy,” she said.

Tripp’s job today includes everything from work on conservation issues and water protection to safeguarding seagrasses and natural springs and supporting international manatee conservation. She speaks regularly at public hearings and writes guest columns and opinion pieces for a variety of newspapers. She serves as a media spokesperson on a variety of environmental issues, writes grants in support of research and community outreach campaigns, and develops education and outreach materials oriented to children, boaters, fishermen and the general public.

She also mentors students, having led two research projects in recent years, working with student interns on projects aimed at conducting field research needed to address important management questions. Tripp has spoken to groups ranging from scuba diving clubs to university classes, and regularly assists SMC in fundraising activities as well as contributing to the development of manatee-related conservation plans in several countries.

“There are so many amazing people devoted to helping manatees and protecting their habitat in other countries, and they just need a little help,” Tripp said. “SMC provides that help in the way of funding or sharing our expertise from the work our organization has been doing in Florida since 1981.”

The most challenging aspect of her job is “getting people to see beyond themselves,” she said.

“To me, it’s obvious why we should protect manatees and their habitat. I see the connection between a healthy environment for them and a healthy environment for us. Unfortunately, not everyone sees that big picture,” Tripp said.

When she looks back on the four and a half years she’s been involved with the club, Tripp sees how her role has evolved and expanded. She wakes up every day with a sense of purpose and truly believes she is making a difference for manatees, both in Florida and in the other countries where SMC works.

“I’m especially proud of the more consistent emphasis SMC is placing on international issues, magnifying our impact around the world,” Tripp said, adding that she’s also honored that research she’s conducted at SMC is the first ever to be designed and implemented exclusively within the organization.

“As a scientist, it’s important for me to continue my involvement with research, and we can tailor projects to meet emerging management issues,” Tripp said. “This work has also allowed me to mentor students, which I really value, because it wasn’t too long ago that I was a young student looking for someone to take me under their wings and guide me.”

Tripp’s high school yearbook included “Save the World” under her future plans.

“I’m always excited to see what opportunity and challenge tomorrow brings,” she said. “I love what I do and take my responsibility as an advocate for the manatees very seriously.”


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