Manatees Myths Make My Patience Endangered

Overlook in Titusville, FL; near the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Pervasive myths abound in our culture when it comes to wildlife. Well, myths, paranoias, and misconceptions abound in our culture, period. One of my least favorite? The West Indian manatee is not a native species in the state of Florida.

Its hard to pinpoint where this idea originated. While its easy to say there is political motivation to brand them as non-native to curtail restrictions on waterways and access to prime fishing spots, its hard to say with any certainty that there is some malicious conspiracy at work attempting to undermine their survival in the sunshine state. Its true, however, that the fishing and boating industry in Florida is huge and certainly pulls in money that could motivate less scrupulous folks.

The mainstay of the myth? Manatees were purposefully introduced to the state by biologists in order to eat non-native plants. Thus they don’t truly belong in Florida and don’t deserve any protections within the state from watercraft impacts or the loss of their habitat.

Its hard for me, when I hear this logic regurgitated at the edge of the Lagoon not to immediately yell out: “Bullshit!” But my friendly slant won’t allow me to berate someone with information like a snooty tyrant. It takes definite restraint to painstakingly detail why manatees are native, to point out their known distribution, and their relative services in the ecosystem (from cropping seagrass habitat and keeping it healthy to producing fertilizer). I’ve found you can soften the blow by mentioning the other manatee and dugong species as well, particularly the Amazonian. Afterall, it might seem sensible that they introduced Amazonian manatees to eat Amazon-originated plants, but it just isnt the case. For some reason people react more positively when you dismantle these myths line by line with logic.

Hopefully I’ll continue to be able to calmly explain the truth and dispel myths and generally conduct outreach on my days off. But… my patience is wearing thin. We’re heading into spring break season in Florida and that often brings out plenty of dolphin and manatee lovers on the coast who get entirely too close. Sea turtle nesting season is also quickly approaching in roughly six weeks. Will this be the year that I lose my temper and verbally castrate someone who is physically assaulting an endangered species? I truly hope not. It might stop someone at that one moment from doing something foolish but it could damage their experience of wildlife – and crazy naturalists – forever.

I think I need a vacation. And for anyone thinking, “Sarah you definitely do need to relax. There are Fish and Wildlife officers for a reason!” This is my thinking: Fish and Wildlife can’t be everywhere. I may not be able to write a ticket or flash a badge but I can’t sit by and watch and do nothing.

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2 Comments to “Manatees Myths Make My Patience Endangered”

  1. I’ve never heard that one… people say they’re not native?

    *withheld expletive*

    I understand your frustration.

    But you probably do need a vacation – don’t we all 🙂

  2. Good on you for doing the right thing. We need more active stewards of Nature. Don’t stop.