My aunt was driving me across a long-span bridge somewhere in South Florida when she pointed out the unrecognizable dots in the water below. There must have been a dozen or so, each one barely moving. “Those are manatees coming in for warmer waters!” I was maybe thirteen years old and visiting our Florida family all the way from my home in Maryland. At the time, I’d never heard of these wonderful creatures so my aunt tried to share as much information about them with me as she could. I instantly fell in love with them and credit this moment with being a turning point in my relationship with animals and, after my own inevitable move to the state, I felt compelled to protect them.
By the time I moved here from the outskirts of Washington, D.C., I was nearly twenty years old. My family settled in a small town west of Gainesville, in the north central region of the state, and I immediately got to work volunteering with the Save the Manatee Club. I helped distribute information about the organization and adopted a manatee named Star. Star was a popular manatee “resident” at Homosassa Springs State Park, a friendly girl with a natural ability to remember regularly scheduled snack times. Over the next few years, I would continue to purchase an adoption certificate for a couple more manatees, like Howie and Floyd from Blue Springs State Park or Betsy from Homossassa Springs, and even gifted such adoptions to friends of mine who lived out of state, but my heart truly belonged to Star.
A couple of years would go by before I finally decided to head to Homosassa Springs to see my manatees in person. The park itself was only three hours from my home in Newberry so some friends and I drove south one morning, excited to see the other animals in the park, as well. Besides the manatees, only one other park resident impressed me and that would be Lucifer. Lu is a hippopotamus of unrealistically large proportions and a former movie star (Tarzan, anyone?). When he’s uncomfortable or agitated, his roar can shake the ground. He’s also been known to get testy with his human caretakers. I had no problem admiring him from a distance and quite enjoyed the walk around the park grounds, but I was really only there for one reason.
Star happened to be in the springs that afternoon when I came to visit. It was absolutely awe-inspiring, not only to see such a large, docile creature like the endangered manatee, but also to be able to personally connect with the animal herself, this animal being the one who opened my eyes to the difficulties of surviving as an endangered species . Survival is the goal for each of us, whether man or manatee, but it’s easy to forget that animals need our support, too, and how interconnected we all are to each other. That meeting with Star is my first memorable moment of truly interacting with an endangered animal and especially with one so specifically linked to Florida.
Part of being involved in a group like this one means receiving notifications when one of our manatees suffered injuries from a boat collision or netting entanglements, succumbed to red tide or, more often, died from infected lacerations or blunt force trauma after meeting a boat propeller. Back in 2000, I received an email from the Save the Manatee Club that Star had died. I can’t say I was shocked. Of course, I was heartbroken. But, no, I wasn’t surprised. These animals are so very fragile and even something as unexpected as a simple infection, something that could have been living in her body for years, can wreak havoc on the bloodstream of a manatee before death occurs. Septicemia, is what they said.
Since moving to Jacksonville ten years ago, becoming a single mother, and finding myself overwhelmed with life, work, and school, I have distanced myself from the hands-on work many organizations and groups need in order to run efficiently and effectively. The days get crazy and time runs out before the sun goes down. Loss of daylight and energy were my excuses and instead of getting involved I chose to send money and contribute to fundraisers. Yes, I know that those dollars are appreciated and most conservation groups cannot function without such resources and willing donors. But here I am, three months into a dry spell of unemployment and with many hours in a day left to fill. I no longer have the money to give but I do have the hours to spare and the enthusiasm to do what’s asked of me. It’s time to get myself back into the work, to meet the people who help run these operations and, hopefully, establish a connection again with the animals.
For anyone interested in adopting a manatee, visit the Save the Manatee Club. They’ve added new regional adoptees (from coastal Alabama and the East Coast) and have even taken on the infamous Chessie, the rebel manatee whose winter home of choice is the Chesapeake Bay, not the warm waters of Florida! Chessie must be the unofficial ambassador of SMC, seeing as I lived in the Chesapeake Bay area for years and had never even heard of manatees until visiting Florida. Chessie’s trying to change all that, perhaps. Good on him, I say!
Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve. ~ Elizabeth Costello, in The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee