In the shallow river of Homosassa Springs, about 80 miles north of Tampa, Florida, a manatee was found with "TRUMP" etched on its back. Outraged by that, a local non-profit conservation group, informed the US Center for Biological Diversity about the incident, prompting a federal and local level investigation. A reward of $5,000 was also announced for anyone who could provide any information about the perpetrator.
The manatee was first spotted by a woman named Hailey Warrington on Sunday noon while she was operating a boat on a manatee swim tour. She immediately took pictures and recorded the "harassment" of the manatee and informed the local conservation group. Warrington noticed that algae on the manatee's skin was thick and was scraped down to its skin to write the message.
"This is just disturbing. One hundred percent disturbing. We don't typically see manatees harassed like that. I started documenting so we could report it. This was uncharacteristic for our area. As a tour guide, I was distraught, just as much if not more than the manatee was," she told local news outlet Herald-Tribune.
Federal Investigation Launched
Despite etching on its skin, the manatee did not appear to be wounded. However, the action constitutes harassment. Since manatee is an endangered animal, harassment is a criminal offense and could lead to a year in prison and a $50,000 fine. Hence, the federal and local authorities immediately launched an investigation into the incident.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a non-profit conservation group, announced a $5,000 reward on Monday for anyone who could identify the person who etched President's name on the poor animal's back.
"The US Fish and Wildlife Service is aware of this incident and is working closely with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission," Aurelia Skipwith, Director of the federal agency told Washington Post in a statement.
Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the CBD, condemned the incident and said the culprit must be apprehended. "Endangered species are not billboards to be defaced. What happened to that manatee was wrong and unlawful and the guilty party should be held accountable," she said.
Why Is It A Big Deal?
West Indian manatees are slow-moving marine mammals. It is protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 1973, manatees were given endangered status after their population dropped drastically. Since then, the status has been upgraded to "threatened" but any interference could lead them to extinction.
As per scientists, manatees are very sensitive marine animals. Any human interference could lead to extreme consequences. In cold weather, manatees move to warmer waters near South Florida's power plants. If they feel threatened by human actions, they may not move to warmer waters. It leads to cold-stress syndrome and potentially results in death. Florida is home to about 6,500 manatees but hundreds of them die every year due to collision with boats. In 2020 alone, 637 manatees died due to boat collisions.
That aside, the manatee is an unofficial Florida mascot that is protected under the state's Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. According to the law, it is "unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb any manatee."
As per scientists, manatees, being the only marine vegetarian animals, are essential to maintain the ecological balance of Florida. "It's clear that whoever harmed this defenseless, gentle giant is capable of doing grave violence and needs to be apprehended immediately," Lopez said, adding that anyone with information could call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation hotline at (888) 404-3922.