TIERRA VERDE — From the camel to the reindeer, many members of the animal kingdom have found themselves straddled and spurred by humans. Florida, where ostrich riding was a tourist attraction in the early 20th century, is a hot spot for exotic beasts of burden.
In light of this history, one might expect there would be no harm in riding atop the manatee, an ovoid sea mammal not much known for other practical uses.
One would be wrong.
The insult manatee riding presents to both nature and Floridian civilization was on full display Tuesday, when law-enforcement officials launched a public campaign to identify a woman who was seen riding a manatee at Fort De Soto Park.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a news conference to decry the alleged abuse of an animal he called "a huge part of our culture here in Florida" and "a very integral part of what Florida is about."
At the gathering of reporters and news cameramen, slightly surreal in its gravity, Gualtieri said he hoped photographs a bystander snapped of the mysterious manatee rider will identify the woman and bring her to justice.
"Go ride a Jet Ski. Don't use animals," the sheriff said. "She needs to be held accountable for her actions."
Later Tuesday, the publicity effort paid off when Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez phoned the Sheriff's Office and admitted to being the alleged manatee molester.
When deputies met with Gutierrez, 52, at her St. Petersburg home Tuesday evening, she admitted touching the manatees but claimed she didn't know that doing so was illegal.
She was not arrested or charged. Charges were referred to the state attorney's office, authorities said.
The ordeal began at 1 p.m. Sunday when deputies received a call from beach visitors reporting that a woman was riding a manatee in the water north of Gulf Pier. Arriving, deputies could find neither the woman nor her steed.
The caller later gave deputies a series of photos of a woman in a white hat and black bikini top astride the beast.
Under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, sea cow molestation constitutes a second-degree misdemeanor, an offense punishable by a $500 fine or a term of up to 60 days in the county jail.
Authorities do not believe the manatee was physically hurt. The psychological impact of the incident is harder to assess.
"It's a wild animal. It's not something to be ridden," said Susan Butler, a manatee expert with the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville. "I can't say that as a biologist I would ever, ever condone that, or say that (the manatee) wanted them to do that."
Yet the dimensions of the manatee mind are difficult to judge. The wrinkly snouted creatures are mild mannered and without natural predators, as though they had been airlifted into the gulf's warm waters from a world where the laws of natural selection don't apply. Many are curious about human beings. Their tolerance of people's presence has led sea cows to mutilation or death when run over by motorboats.
Those familiar with the animals say the indignity of being ridden is simply too much.
"God — I just — I can't believe somebody is riding a manatee," stammered Sunshine River Tours owner Michael Millsap when informed of the events at Fort De Soto. "That's just ridiculous."
Millsap, who runs swim-and-snorkel tours out of Crystal River that let people get in the water to observe manatees, said that about a decade ago he was forced to crack down on a 9-year-old girl who tried to ride a manatee while her science teacher looked on.
"I told them … I never want to see them again on my tour," Millsap said.
With such strong feelings on display, it's clear the manatee has found its way to the heart of Floridians, where it floats in a cherished preserve.
Woe be to those who would disturb it.
Times staff writers Marissa Lang, Dan Sullivan and Matthew Riva contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.