The New York Times has just discovered something people in Florida have known for a long time: Our state park system is something special. What the "gray lady" chose to focus on was one particular state park, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, and specifically the fact that it's the only place in the world where the list of jobs includes the category "mermaid."
Visitors have been drawn to Weeki Wachee since it first opened as a kitschy roadside attraction in 1947, offering daily mermaid shows in an underwater theater. In 2008, the state park system assumed control rather than see it close, which put the mermaids on the state payroll. As you might expect from people who have to put on a 60-pound prosthetic fish tail to do their jobs, they are a singularly dedicated bunch. The Times story quotes one of the women who worked at Weeki Wachee, left, then was drawn back like a sailor captivated by a siren's song: "I spent about a year and a half trying not to be a mermaid, and it was just like, 'Well, I am.' "
The Times doesn't mention it, but Weeki Wachee isn't the only place you can find mermaids in Florida. Some of them were featured at the party that BuzzFeed sponsored at the Florida Aquarium during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. Among Florida's freelance mermaids is one woman who bills herself as "the world's leading professional mermaid." Meanwhile there's a Florida man who is obsessed with being a merman and has developed a business creating tails for others with a similar obsession. Fortunately, those two merpersons found each other and have gone swimming off together into the sunset.
But I digress. As I was saying, Florida's state parks are something special. From the soaring sugar-white dunes of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to the lush and mysterious depths of the Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park, they offer a breathtaking diversity of views of the state. You can find manatees splashing at Blue Spring State Park and ghost orchids hiding in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. One park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, was the first undersea park in the United States.
The parks are a haven for all sorts of wildlife—roseate spoonbills, bats, and black bears, to name a few. But in Florida, only Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park can claim to have a herd of bison, imported in the 1970s because bison used to live in Florida before the early settlers wiped them out.
Being a home to buffalo that roam has turned into something of a headache for parks officials, because the beasts regard fences as a mere suggestion. They break through barricades, cross highways amid traffic, wander through suburban cul-de-sacs. Even when they stay in the park they sometimes block hiking paths and charge rangers. One woman reported being trapped in a felled tree by a thundering herd. She feared she might be trampled. Instead she wound up covered with what an official report on the incident referred to as "buffalo snot."
I interviewed the buffalo snot lady, who is a true Floridian. She was not at all upset about the bison. The whole time she was surrounded by smelly beasts and being coated with mucus, she said, her one thought was, "I am going to die today, but isn't this awesome?"
Of course, Florida's legislators have yet to see anything that wouldn't be improved by letting some big-money guy tinker with it. A couple of years ago, two of them proposed bills that would allow Jack Nicklaus to design golf courses at five state parks. The bills said each course "shall be designed and built in an environmentally sensitive manner" but also "may include a hotel." This brilliant idea grew out of discussions between Nicklaus and Gov. Rick Scott on reviving the state's economy. They decided Florida needed more golf courses, at a time when Florida already had more golf courses than any other state—more than 1,000, according to the National Golf Foundation, which is of course based in Florida.
The golf-course idea proved to be so incredibly unpopular that the legislators withdrew the bills after only a week of being openly mocked by everyone in the state who was not named Nicklaus. However, given all the publicity the mermaids are getting right now, I fully expect the Legislature's next proposal will be to require that all state park employees wear fake tails and nametags that say "Ariel."
Craig Pittman is a native Floridian and an award-winning reporter who covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. This column originally appeared in Slate.