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Sue Carlton: Welcome to Florida — please don't ride the manatees

Authorities say Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez turned herself in Tuesday after this photo of her riding a manatee surfaced.

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office

Authorities say Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez turned herself in Tuesday after this photo of her riding a manatee surfaced.

On our to-do list for the Sunshine State: Fix unemployment, deal with homelessness, stop the foreclosure crisis and …

Yep, looks like we have to put up signs telling the common-sense-challenged among us not to ride the manatees.

In the latest story allowing those clever bloggers to call us "Floriduh" yet again, a woman named Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez, 52, was photographed riding a manatee Sunday afternoon in the balmy blue waters off Fort De Soto Park. ("Riding" is a broad term here, since it looked more like bellying up to a blowup beach float, manatees not being known for their lightning speed.)

Go ahead, laugh. Everyone else did.

Go ahead and make fun of the alleged manatee molester who made the New York Daily News. Joke about the big bad sheriff referring this heinous crime to the state attorney's office. Make witty observations about how it must be nice to live in a place without real problems, like drugs or gangs.

And excuse me for a second while I put on my native Floridian schoolmarm hat, weaved of palm fronds, Spanish moss and osprey feathers, to say:

You know what? This really does matter.

Most of us who grew up in this state (and plenty of the ones who came later) respect what's in it beyond the strip malls and suburbs that could just as well be in Ohio. Our sea cows are protected federally and also under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. It's a misdemeanor to "annoy, molest, harass or disturb" them, and a few people every year get charged. Officials have even seen someone tie a rope around a manatee to try to ride behind it.

Seem too dumb to have actually happened? Remember, just recently, wildlife officials actually had to say: No, it is not okay to bring an alligator to a pool party so guests can swim with it.

I know: Floriduh.

Manatee rules are not there to speed-trap the well-meaning who are understandably charmed and curious about these animals lumbering along in the water.

Carol Knox, biological administrator in the manatee program at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, put it this way: "Wild animals are out there doing what they need to do to survive." Right now manatees are chowing down to store up for winter. Baby manatees need to stick close to mothers to learn the ropes. Manatees mate to make more manatees. They rest, too.

Human interaction can disturb and interrupt this.

Also, when animals get used to people, they can get attracted to places they should not be — like the gator in the neighborhood lake grown sassy from being fed marshmallows and becoming a threat to the local Shih Tzu population. For manatees, that means where boats zip around. It means potential collisions, death and the damage a slicing propeller can do to a manatee hide.

"We're not always the safest individuals for them to be around," Knox says.

Nothing wrong with watching — just let them do their manatee thing.

This week, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri came out with something the native Floridian in me really appreciated for both its brevity and basic sense: "Go ride a Jet Ski," he said. "Don't use animals."

Do we really need to post signs, too?

Sue Carlton: Welcome to Florida — please don't ride the manatees 10/04/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 9:18pm]
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