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Old manatee hotline finds wrong wildlife

Published November 30, 2003

For years, the Florida Marine Patrol advertised a toll-free number so callers could report injured and dead manatees, boating violations, illegal dumping and other problems.

When the patrol was absorbed into the new Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission five years ago, the number changed.

But the old 800 number lives on, posted throughout Florida on boater education signs, printed in park brochures and included on Web sites for everything from SeaWorld to the Humane Society. Last week, a newspaper ad for the Miami Seaquarium included the old number.

Trouble is, someone else owns that 800 number now. Someone with a different definition of wildlife.

Starting last month, callers trying to report an injured manatee using the old 800 number were referred to another 800 number, which turned out to be a sex-talk line called Intimate Encounters. A woman's voice promised a chat with "fantasy girls" in exchange for a credit card.

"That's not the kind of wildlife violation they respond to," quipped Suzanne Tarr of the Save the Manatee Club, which is replacing its old signs with new ones showing the new number.

One irate caller eventually got hold of state wildlife biologist Penny Husted.

"She was very upset," Husted said. "She said a lot of people are not going to go through the trouble she went through to report an injured manatee."

This is not the first time Intimate Encounters has turned a hotline into a party line. It has taken over old toll-free numbers from the conservative journal Policy Review, the World Wildlife Fund, Alltel's wireless customer service and rape crisis lines in Maine and Arizona. A spokesman for the Philadelphia company did not return calls seeking comment.

Tom Pitchford of the wildlife agency's Florida Marine Research Institute said he could not figure out how Intimate Encounters would attract paying sex-line customers from people reporting dead animals.

Agency biologists had urged their bosses to hang onto the old number because it was so well known, he said. Before the sex-line connection, callers to the number got no answer, which also prompted complaints, he said.

Being hooked up to a sex line "only adds to the levels of frustration felt by our field staff and FWC dispatchers, it's making us look really bad to the public," Elsa Haubold, in charge of the marine institute's manatee program, wrote in an e-mail to agency officials.

The agency kept the 800 number for four years after the demise of the Florida Marine Patrol, noted Major Kent Thompson of the wildlife agency's law enforcement division. Until July, callers to the line got a recording referring them to the new number. Then, the company that owns the 800 listings apparently sold it to Intimate Encounters, he said.

Now, Thompson said, "we want to see if we can get that number back again."

The situation had agency spokesman Henry Cabbage shaking his head: "You've got to admire the American spirit when it comes to figuring out a way to make a buck. We're just geniuses at that."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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