CITRUS COUNTY, Fla. – A manatee was recently spotted swimming along the Homosassa River with the word “Trump” scraped onto its skin and now, a federal investigation is underway.
The Center for Biological Diversity is offering a $5,000 reward for information about who harassed the manatee and said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating.
FWS confirmed to News 6 Monday evening that it is investigating the matter. A spokeswoman said the manatee did not appear to be seriously injured.
“It’s heartbreaking that this manatee was subjected to this vile, criminal act,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center. “It’s clear that whoever harmed this defenseless, gentle giant is capable of doing grave violence and needs to be apprehended immediately.”
Patrick Rose, the aquatic biologist and executive director for the Save the Manatee Club, said whoever did it is probably familiar with manatees and knows how to handle them.
He said they likely used their hand to scrape the epiphytes and algae that grow on the animal and they may have scratched the top layers of the sea cow’s skin as well, although it wouldn’t have bled.
“It appears it was done with the hand and the four primary fingers to scratch (the epiphytes) but it was hard enough that they were getting to the top layers of the skin of the manatee as well, as far as those layers that would normally be shed over time. I can’t say that it was actually penetrating into the skin itself based on the photos I have,” Rose said.
He believes the injury was likely done within about a week of the photo being taken. Any older than that and the epiphytes and algae would have already grown back already.
“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is investigating the harassment of a manatee...reported to federal authorities over the weekend discovered w/ words "Trump" scraped in its back ...discovered in Blue Hole on the Homosassa River” (via @CitrusChronicle )— 𝐄𝐱𝐚𝐯𝐢𝐞𝐫 𝐏𝐨𝐩𝐞 (@exavierpope) January 11, 2021
Insurrectioning wildlife? pic.twitter.com/PvzI3pZ5Xn
He condemned the culprit and warned against interfering with wildlife.
“It’s an extremely dumb thing to do and it clearly in doing so, in my opinion, it did violate those federal laws in terms of really causing the manatee to be altered in its behavior and so forth,” Rose said.
Another concern for Rose is that the manatee, which he estimated to be an adolescent between 3 and 4 years old, may have been sick and not able to escape what was happening.
“There are manatees that can already be sick or what have you that would be less likely to flee away from someone. It can also be that, unfortunately, there are a number of manatees that have become more accustomed to divers and swimmers over the years -- especially in both the Homosassa River, Kings Bay, the Crystal River -- that by manipulating in certain ways, you may not be causing that manatee to be alarmed by what you’re doing,” Rose said.
Another indication that the manatee could be ill is that it still had barnacles attached to its skin from being in the cold salt water. Manatees can’t survive frigid temperatures so they migrate to warmer waters in the winter months.
“If it was recent, then it was out in salt water just a short time ago, not long enough yet for the barnacles to have fallen off into fresh water and if it had stayed in the salt water too long and wasn’t able to stay warm enough, this could be a very sick manatee. I just don’t know because that would better explain perhaps how someone could manipulate it this much,” Rose said.
He added that harassment of this kind could deter manatees from warm waters and send them back into colder areas where they’re less likely to survive.
“It definitely would be discouraging manatees from being able to rest and recuperate in the warmer spring waters and it’s vital to their health that they be left alone and allowed to rest and recuperate and this type of activity can disrupt that ability for manatees to be able to rest and stay warm,” Rose said. “So we would definitely condemn, honestly, this action and we certainly hope this was not a sick animal that allowed this to happen to it because it would be in danger of further distress.”
He suspects the person responsible may have been trying to convey some type of political message and he asked anyone with information about the culprit to contact authorities.
“West Indian manatees are essential members of the ecosystems in which they inhabit and are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” said Aurelia Skipwith, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is aware of this incident and is working closely with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. If you have any information regarding this case, please call our wildlife crime tips hotline at 1-844-397-8477 or email us at FWS_TIPS@FWS.GOV.”