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Close encounters found above . . . // 'Gentle giant' resembles pet

My first thought after my first-ever look at a Florida manatee: Thosepoor creatures. They are the ugliest things I've ever seen.

But looks can be deceiving, and after a minute or two I began to see the real manatee and came to understand why so many people find these "gentle giants" so lovable.

First, I quickly discovered my first glance was not of a manatee face - which to me wasn't just ugly, it was scary as well - but of a manatee nose. An upturned nose, it was, with flaring nostrils that tricked me into thinking the creature was blinking his eyes.

Until a few months ago, when the media was highlighting the plight of some manatees killed in the December freeze, I knew nothing about the creatures some call sea cows.

Driving to the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, my knowledge was still minimal. I knew they were an endangered species, and I knew they were big, but that was about it. I was curious to find out why the manatee is so special.

Second thoughts, after seeing the "real" manatee: They act just like Max, our family golden retriever. He's almost 4 years old, but has never outgrown the puppy stage. Max is a big dog and when he wants to be petted, he lets his nose do the talking. He'll smear that wet, walnut-size nose all over and under any available hand until it lifts and lands on his head.

Like Max, these playful manatees nudged and nosed their way into the hands of Betsy Dearth, a state park ranger wading in the water with them. As Ms. Dearth spoke to a large group of visitors near the shoreline, the manatees did their best to divert her attention.

She must be used to their antics, I thought, watching her alternately and sometimes simultaneously reach into a nearby food bucket,

feed the pushy giants (who weigh a good 2,000 pounds) and spread loving pats all around.

Hugh and his pal Hurricane, two of the park's four male manatees, spent most of the presentation on their backs. They reminded me of Garfield, the fat comic strip cat, as the two characters lounged on their backs and lazily beckoned Ms. Dearth's attention to their mouths with their upper flippers.

Never annoyed, Ms. Dearth's affection and respect for her charges is clear.

"It's such a privilege to work with them, they are so great," she said after the program. "They're not just a blob floating in the water. They each have their own personality and ways of getting attention."

Other thoughts: As a group of manatees rested on the other side of the lake, they snacked on carrots. They don't have any teeth in the front of their mouths, Ms. Dearth pointed out, so they have to work the food to their back molars. Watching a manatee finally munch a carrot, I thought of the way my children learned the fine art of eating without teeth. They gummed their strained peas until the food was gone - it was either swallowed, dribbled down the chin or spit back at Mommy.

Meal time over, the manatees rested. Eat, sleep and play - that's life for a park manatee, Ms. Dearth said with a laugh.

By the time I was ready to leave, my curiosity was satisfied. It wasn't hard to see why the manatee is special. They are bigger than just about any other ocean animal, but have no natural enemies. Just man, Ms. Dearth sighed.

"They are completely harmless," she said. "They don't compete with man for anything, they just give us service."