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Carlton: Fort De Soto manatee ride has lesson for us all

Steve Leach is your classic Florida transplant, a guy who came here three decades ago, pronounced it "awesome" and never left. His day job is in telecommunications, but there's also what his wife calls his "serious hobby" — up before dawn, slogging through water and woods with his Canon, photographing herons and egrets, owls and hawks, sunsets and surfs.

And, yes, manatees, including one that a woman recently tried to ride.

By now you have seen Leach's photo gone viral of a St. Petersburg woman atop a sea cow, this one taken less in appreciation of nature's beauty than in outrage.

Leach tells me it was a good Sunday at Fort De Soto (for my money, one of the best all-around parks in Florida.) He and his photo buddies were up before dawn to catch the sunrise and the amazing birds, and by early afternoon he was ready for a tall, frosty lemonade at the pier.

Out in the water, manatees were mating amid some tail-slapping, rowdier than your standard sea-cow-gliding-by scene. ("I don't have a certificate in manatee identification," Leach says, "but you can pretty much tell what's going on.") A woman later identified as Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez climbed on, even as people including Leach yelled "no", "get away," and "You can't do that."

And Leach snapped the photo that went around the world: woman rides manatee.

It didn't last long, he says, and the manatees left.

While it is generally true that messing with wildlife is not smart, not respectful and not good for their survival, it should also be said that she later told deputies she didn't know it was not legal. On her Facebook page, with pictures dated Sunday showing sea cows that sure appear to be coupling, she wrote in Spanish: beautiful manatee.

Appreciation aside, harassing or disturbing them is a crime, as it should be. The state attorney's office will decide if she is charged with the second-degree misdemeanor.

After he turned his pictures over to law enforcement, Leach went out of town to Miami and didn't know for days how the story had grown. Even a fellow photographer in Australia saw it.

Reaction, he says, has gone three ways: People are appalled someone would do that to a manatee; they think he should mind his own business; or they think there must be more serious crime to worry about than this.

Me, I'm glad he cared enough to take the picture. I'm also glad law enforcement is concerned about all kinds of crimes.

Whatever happens to the woman who rode the manatee, Leach hopes it will include something educational.

On Key Biscayne this week, he ran into a group of tourists from China having lunch. They were approached by cute raccoons looking for a handout. Leach explained how raccoons are wild and can hurt you and also about the problem of animals becoming dependent on us. They asked good questions, he says. "Ninety percent of people want to learn," he says.

I volunteer for a sea turtle watch group, and when you are walking the shore you get your share of wags who tell you how they just love turtle soup (and really, never gets old.) But Leach is right: Most people are curious, interested, even fascinated. They turn out to want what's best for the cool things that live here. Florida can do that to you.

Carlton: Fort De Soto manatee ride has lesson for us all 10/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 5, 2012 7:48pm]
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