In the eye of the beholder: Changing social perceptions of the Florida manatee.
This reading is about how the manatee, a persecuted marine mammal due to it’s lack of ability to do anything other than flight, was hunted to being an almost extinct species. Through research and study, it’s image of a negative effect on marine life and the people in Florida was revamped by education and knowledge on how it’s not a threat, but in fact a harmless creature.
Florida’s state marine mammal, the Florida manatee, is a large aquatic relative of the elephant. They are grayish brown in color and have thick, wrinkled skin on which there is often a growth of algae. Their front flippers help them steer or sometimes crawl through shallow water. They also have powerful flat tails that help propel them through the water. Despite their small eyes and lack of outer ears, manatees are thought to see and hear quite well.
In the late 1800s, the gradual raise of settlements and developments in Florida as well as slaughter of the manatees led to an alarming decrease in manatees. This was attributed to the value that the manatees held – game species. Hunted relentlessly for food and the fact that the manatees are defenseless animals. There were even myths that manatees consumed large quantities of fish, leaving little for anglers and there was a danger of them striking out to bite a person. It was agreed that there is a severe lack of understanding towards this marine animal.
In the 20th century, not much had changed. Idle anglers were still observed trying to intentionally hook the manatees for the fun of it. Cement blocks were dropped on their heads and even shot at for target practice! Fishermen complained about propellers being spoilt on the backs of manatees. All these negative associations did nothing to but maintain the unimportance of the manatee in the public eye.
Something had to be done. Subsequently, Hartman’s (1969) groundbreaking work on manatee behavior resonated with a nation and Congress growing more sympathetic toward marine mammals and endangered species in the 1970s. Hartman testified before the House of Representatives that the Florida manatee was at risk and needed protection against non-natural mortality, especially that associated with boats and pollution (U.S Congress, 1971). Scientists and policy makers of the late 1970s argued that people did not know enough about the manatees and education would be the most effective tool to save the marine animal.
So, efforts were put in to change ignorance and negative impressions with knowledge and sympathy. Compared to the beginning, Sikes (1974, p.466), in an article reporting on a collection expedition for manatees in Africa, described manatees as “a cross between a dirty barrage balloon and a gray maggot.” This doesn’t help.
More research and investigation into the manatee yielded important information that could be used to raise awareness about them. Manatees are herbivores and are ill adapted to pursue or consume prey. They are also social animals, with different behaviors when in a colony.
In addition to being rare, the Florida manatee also is singular from an ecological standpoint. According to a manatee biologist “. . . they’re very unique physiologically, anatomically, [and] biologically” (C. Beck, personal communication, October 16, 2001). A marine mammal biologist on the staff of Sea World of Florida, explained their unique ecological value: “They are spreading fertilizer. They’re keeping the sea grasses in a very dynamic state of
growth, rather than an old growth type of thing. So, there’s deﬁnitely a function” D. Odell, (personal communication, September 29, 2001). The only largescale, aquatic herbivore of its kind in the United States made the manatee
worthy of strong public support and prioritized policy attention.
Such new images of manatees changed descriptions of manatees. By the late 1980s, journalists wrote “With an air of innocence and a body that looks as a pudgy and cuddly as a human baby’s it is a charismatic creature” (Rattner, 1995, pg. 28). The days of likening manatees to maggots were over.
People fear what they do not understand and what they do not know. Creatures have been persecuted and made extinct historically due to apathy and ignorance. But research has shown that the image of an animal can be reinvented, just as how humans can be repacked like our pop stars, movie stars. Like a story we’re all familiar with, the ugly duckling who became a beautiful swan, the manatee gained value not from an aesthetic viewpoint, but newfound knowledge that they are in fact rare, unique, and the animal’s character is one that you found associating more with a domestic pet than a ravenous wolf.
Goekeke, T. L. (2004). In the eye of the beholder: Changing social perceptions of the Florida manatee. Society and Animals, 12, 99-
Hartman, D. (1971). Behavior and ecology of the Florida manatee, (Trichechusmanatus Latirostris) Harlan, at Crystal River, Citrus county. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Rattner, R. 1995. Make way for manatees. Wildlife Conservation, 98, 22-29.
Sikes, S. (1974). How to save the mermaids. Oryx, 12, 465-470.