A little laugh can do a manatee a lot of good

A Times Editorial
Published January 9, 2007

In a twist that even television gag writers could not have conjured up, Florida's imperiled manatees are getting more help from a comedic Web site than from the government agency charged with helping to keep the struggling species alive.

Hornymanatee.com, the brainchild of the writing staff of Late Night With Conan O'Brien, a post-midnight television talk show, started out as a joke at the expense of the manatees. Then, the NBC network bought the Web address and the once-fictitious site came alive with a mixture of bizarre and humorous photos featuring manatees in suggestive poses.

Actually, the images on screen are people in manatee costumes cavorting with one another. No real manatees were harmed in the creation of the TV skit or the Web site.

Too bad the same cannot be said of Florida's treatment of real manatees in 2006. As of Dec. 8, 392 manatees were reported killed in Florida waters, 27 more than were killed in 2005 and near the record of 415 deaths in 1996.

Earlier in the year, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to reduce protections for manatees by reclassifying the species as threatened instead of endangered. Noting that the numbers of manatees in state waters is growing, with 3,116 counted in 2006, the agency took a step that critics fear will lead to a weakening of manatee protections.

The federal government, however, still considers the manatee to be an endangered species.

A funny thing happened after Conan O'Brien had his sport with the manatees. People began visiting the site, and nearly 25,000 of them followed the link to the Save the Manatee Club site. There they found not photos of manatees in lewd poses but sober information aimed at educating people on the plight of the gentle giants.

Club officials say that 40 manatees have been "adopted," and that 200 T-shirts have been sold, thanks to the connection with the show. That is a welcome surge of interest and support for the group, which often finds itself competing for government attention against heavily financed boating and recreational fishing advocacy groups.

Those genuinely interested in helping the manatees have another online avenue to explore. The wildlife commission is developing a plan to help manage the remaining manatee population, available online at myfwc.com/manatee.

As part of the process, the agency is soliciting citizen comments, which will be collected through Thursday. Officials hope to hear from those who spend a lot of time in state waters and thus can offer unique observations about the interaction of humans and manatees. Comments can be made through manatee_plan@MyFWC.com.