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Can Web spoof help save manatees?

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published December 15, 2006


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This isn't exactly what Pat Rose had in mind. But hey, whatever works.

Rose is executive director of Save the Manatee Club, which advocates for the gentle sea cows. The club is always trying to raise awareness - and money.

Now comes help from an unlikely source: Conan O'Brien, the late night TV talker and host of the hot new Web site www.hornymanatee.com.

Yes, horny manatees.

It started as a gag on O'Brien's NBC show. But the bit became a huge hit. And Save the Manatee is seizing the opportunity.

On Wednesday, the club said it wouldn't mind if NBC linked www.hornymanatee to its Web site.

Plus, the network is giving the club $5 from each "horny manatee" T-shirt it sells.

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Save the Manatee sure hopes so.

Manatees are a federally endangered species often killed by boats and edged out of habitat by development. In the winter, they flock to warm water. In places like Citrus County, people swim with the gentle giants, and sometimes harass them.

The club preaches the federal law on manatee interaction. Watch from a distance. Don't touch. Don't ride.

All those rules, and many others, are violated on hornymanatee.com - albeit with fake manatees.

The main page shows a man in a bulky gray manatee costume, the kind mascots wear on the sideline at college football games. Viewers can take a risque tour of the "manatee's" exploits.

Then there is the "fan art" section, which shows what Conan viewers can produce when armed with a funny premise and computer technology.

In the fan submissions, quite a few people touch or ride manatees. Some manatees are touching themselves.

Rose said people know it's a joke.

That's why, when O'Brien's staffers contacted him, he gave his blessing to the Web link and even authorized use of the club's logo.

"We figured we should give hornymanatee.com some altruistic value," a show spokesman said.

There was no hornymanatee.com on Dec. 4. But the name was mentioned during a gag, so NBC paid $159 for the site and then started to build it.

O'Brien urged viewers to add their own art. Nearly 300 had done so by Thursday afternoon.

The bit caught on. NBC expected 11-million hits by the end of Thursday. The New York Times wrote about the phenomenon earlier this week.

While the avenue is unconventional, Rose said he sees value in reaching a wider audience with Save the Manatee's conservation agenda.

"Ultimately some good for manatees could come out of it," he said.

"People could see the real story of manatees and these people could be different from our regular audience."

Save the Manatee's membership often includes educators and conservationists. Rose said the Web link might draw computer-oriented young people.

"They're going to fly from one thing to the next. MySpace, You Tube. This is where it's at for them," Rose said. "If we can get them to click on our site, read a few things, that's good for the manatee. If you get them to adopt a manatee or sign up for an action alert, then we're way ahead."

Of course, Rose will only go so far. He doesn't defend or endorse the outrageous scenes depicted on the Web site.

Does he worry that people might try some of the behavior with real manatees?

"I had to think about that, of course," Rose said. "But I think that somebody has got to be pretty far off the charts to put this in context of real contact with manatees. It's a parody."

In September 2005, the Simpsons aired an episode that ended with a manatee getting eaten. Rose said he didn't like that part, but the club arranged for a public service announcement on manatee protection from Alec Baldwin, voice of the manatee biologist in the episode.

"The bottom line is that people understood it was the Simpsons," Rose said. "People understand that this is Conan."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 352 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 15, 2006, 00:38:23]


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