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.

The Manatee

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.

Present Day

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.


4 comments so far

  1. snowkinz on

    wow haven’t heard of this animal before at all. must be really rare and endangered. Although they were not specifically hunted like the sharks, but they suffered more due to human sea-activities. People do not know or care about the animal until journalists wrote a pleasing and positive description of the manatees.

    I agree that humans do not care about things they dont know or know little about. we are also lazy to find out more about things that we don’t know. due to our laziness, we believe in what we are told for topics that we have no knowledge on. when the journalists said that the manatees are sweet and innocent, the view that people have on the manatee became better.

  2. leothg on

    I have always wonder the reasons why manatees are hunted down to extinction as they were such peaceful and harmless creatures in the ocean. So they were being mistaken by the assumption left over from myths, and were hunted down. It is very heartening to see these peaceful creatures’ extinction due to human activities, sometimes i question the word ‘humane’ in terms of humanity.

    I agree with your point that people fear what they do not understand, and people are being lead to manipulation through the wrong information given by pure assumption. I fully agree that many animals/creatures have been hunted down to the level of endangered or extinction due to the lack of understanding, ignorance and apathy.

    However, these sort of misconception can be change, the example that is provided by the reader proves that image of a figure can be reinvented. Therefore, knowledge is no doubt the most powerful tool. With knowledge, one can be manipulated towards the wrong action. But with the right research and information, one can proof justice to the topic and enlighten the public with the right information.

  3. glassleaves on

    Changing social perceptions through knowledge was no doubt a significant and effective strategy in helping the Florida manatee from going extinct. The article highlights what organizations can do to change public perception, garner public support, and work to influence change.

    However, this article triggers an interesting question. Why does it make it more justifiable for humans to try and wipe out an animal species that is perceived to be pointless or a nuisance as opposed to animals that are ecologically valuable? I think that social perception of humans as being the more valuable species and at the top of the food-chain should change. People should see the value of life in whichever shapes or sizes that in comes in.

  4. uwa20908686 on

    Interesting article. I have not heard of the Florida manatee, and I believe many people alike due its natural range being primarily restricted to Florida. It is the state’s economy that causes the manatee to suffer from high human-related mortality. Driven by constant development and water recreation industries, the animal has gotten in the way of the people’s selected lifestyle.

    So in my opinion, the question here is essentially how much of coastal development should go to man and how much should be allocated to wildlife? And this – is ultimately decided by men. Wildlife cease to exist by human choice. I agree with the author that ‘creatures have bee persecuted and made extinct historicallly due to apathy and ignorance’. Because of that it was necessary to change social perceptions of the Florida manatee. By further promoting their unique ecological value of spreading fertilizers, people are naturally more willing to limit their recreation desires to reserve living space for the manatees in exchange for a function.

    I think the strategic reinvention of Florida manatees from a non-charismatic species to a charistmatic marine mammal was undoubtedly the most important factor in changing social perception, attitudes and thus human behavior. Some well-known examples of charismatic animal species are pandas, great apes and killer whales. We are all at least remotely interested in these animals as they often portrayed by the media as endearing and/or powerfully affective. These species receive tremendous public awareness, concern, emotion and economic attention. Unfortunately, due to the fact that Florida manatees are not immediately categorized as charismatic, a lot of initiatives and extra work have been committed in order to validify conservation efforts of this underrated species.

    This article however, gives hope to the reader. For someone like me who feels that the “animal hierarchy” should be removed in entirety when it comes to protecting endangered wildlife species, I am reassured that even the underrated Florida manatee has now garnered favorable social recognition and will bear higher chances of survival in the long run. 🙂


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