It's not as if the world was safe for animals of any sort in the 20th and 21st centuries, but if there were a poster child for a species undeniably damaged and persecuted by humankind, it might well be Trichechus manatus latirostris, the Florida manatee.
Gentle giants of tropical waters, the world's three manatee species have any number of things going against them. They reproduce slowly, meaning that they do not easily replace themselves, and there are not so many of them to begin with. Moreover, they move slowly, a fatal drawback in a maritime environment full of fast, hard boats. Worse yet, at least for the Florida variety, they are given to lolling in just the sorts of places where people with the means to do so like to build palaces by the sea and moor their vessels — and, as in most instances where the comforts of creatures versus the moneyed come into conflict, for generations, the manatees have lost.
And why should they not? They are, after all, docile and easily displaced. Or, as St. Petersburg Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman puts it in his lively account of that battle, manatees are "the hippies of the animal kingdom: staunch vegetarians, nonviolent, but with a powerful sex drive."
Communards and layabouts, the manatees have made for easy targets. In the unpopulated, wild Florida of the past, they were prized for meat that rivaled the choicest beef, hunted for the grill and the stewpot. No longer eaten, the manatees mostly fall before hull and propeller in the nation's fourth-most-populous state. Pittman (co-author of Paving Paradise: Florida's Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss) reckons that, since biologists began tracking them in the mid 1970s, about 5,000 of them have died in collisions with boats.
The postmortems have been revealing, many manatee corpses showing signs of multiple encounters with boats, with all the attendant dings and gouges and broken bones. Indeed, down Miami way, Pittman writes, only one manatee since 1950 "ever got away completely unscathed" — that sole unmangled manatee being the denizen of an aquarium, forced into that sad bargain between safety and slavery.
It's not that seaborne Floridians go out of their way to annihilate manatees. It's just that boats, public enemy No. 1 in the manatee universe, are dangerous things. Indeed, Pittman notes, in 2007, a time when economic conditions began to keep many recreational boats on dry land, the number of manatee deaths fell markedly. The count was 73, as opposed to 77 human boaters who died on the waters, themselves the victims of accidents. With no state requirement for testing and licensing boaters, it's amazing that the body count for both species wasn't higher yet.
That fact is one of hundreds that Pittman, a three-time winner of the Waldo Proffitt Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism in Florida, tracks in a complex story, one that ultimately involves not just manatees and boaters, but also environmental activists, academic and government scientists, think tanks, developers, tourist boards, chambers of commerce, builders and countless ordinary citizens — not to mention Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Jimmy Buffett.
That story unfolds in episodes few of which have neat resolutions, from the arduous struggle to get a good count of how many manatees are actually in Florida's waters to the intramural squabbles of environmental groups that, over the years, have spent as much time wrangling with each other in turf wars as they have actually doing much good for the manatees. Add to that a state wildlife commission made up of political appointees predisposed to favor condos and cabin cruisers over critters, and it's small wonder that Pittman's careful account spans more than 400 pages.
Among the most complex of those episodes, and perhaps the most politically charged, centers on the manatee's formal status. Those wildlife commissioners had to make an uncomfortable choice whether to endorse the idea, seemingly self-evident, that the manatees needed increased protection from the humans around them, even as biologists moved the Florida population onto the endangered species list.
The story is ongoing, and it does not end with the last page of Pittman's fine case study of just how difficult it is to reconcile contending individual interests to the greater good — in this case, a greater good that includes the interests of the animal kingdom.
And what will it take to make Florida safe for manatees? Habitat preservation. Restrictions on development. Boater — and voter — education. Dedication. Pittman addresses all these things, and admirably. We can only hope for a sequel to Manatee Insanity — and one with a decisive, and happy, conclusion.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to Encyclopaedia Britannica and its blog on britannica.com, for which he often writes on scientific and environmental issues.