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Manatee magnetism rivals the allure of Lucifer

As I was rummaging through my dresser drawer a while back, I ran across a snapshot from my 1973 vacation to Florida. There, in all his glory, was a smooth, sleek Lucifer the Hippopotamus, the longtime centerpiece of the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Lucifer and I both have picked up a bad case of wrinkled knees since that photo was taken.

And we've both seen other changes in our lives.

Some new people bought the company where I worked as a writer back in 1973, and the state of Florida bought the place where Lucifer always has worked in the entertainment field.

Neither of us fit into our respective new owners' plans. My company's new owners wanted a newspaper more sympathetic to special interests. Lucifer's new bosses want to make the wildlife park a strictly Florida fauna and flora place. And hippopotamuses aren't native to Florida.

I bowed out of my old job in 1986 and came to the the Times. Lucifer's keepers have been looking around, trying to help him find a new position.

Even without a recession, finding a new job for a middle-aged hippo is hard (we're talking about Lucifer here, of course). It looks as though he will be doing his Catch-the-Cabbage act in Homosassa for at least a few more years.

Hometowners don't call the park by its official name. They don't even call it by its old name, the Homosassa Nature Park.

Locals call it "The Attraction." Of Florida's many enticements, The Attraction is my very favorite.

The only problem is that the wildlife park is difficult to find. You turn west off U.S. 19 onto I-Forget-What Road and then south on I-Can't-Remember Drive. Try explaining that to an out-of-town visitor.

Back in 1973, our visit to the park was by happenstance. We saw a big sign advertising the park on U.S. 19 as we headed toward Marathon to go fishing and swerved in to take a look. We boarded a boat by the parking lot along the highway and putt-putted down to see the hippo.

I was overjoyed to see that route may be opened again in the near future. The Trust for Public Lands is negotiating to buy the 12-acre tract and the 22,300-square-foot former restaurant building on it to provide a highway entrance to The Attraction. The trust hopes to sell it later to the state. The idea is to turn the restaurant into a multi-media education center to teach visitors about Florida wildlife, including the endangered manatee. Then people can board a boat to go see the animals and plants live and in person.

Since several manatees are always in residence at the park, visitors can be assured of always getting to see one.

This plan makes a lot more sense than the one that has been bandied about for the past couple of years to put a manatee interpretive center in a house on Kings Bay in Crystal River. The idea there was to educate people about manatees and then let them go stare at the Bay on the outside chance a manatee might bob up for them to see.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service people paid $600,000 to buy the house without first making sure that the people living around it wanted them for a neighbor. They also forgot to see if putting a big manatee center on the property was in line with the comprehensive growth plan for the city of Crystal River.

Surprise, surprise. The neighbors didn't want the noise and traffic, and the city's comp plan didn't allow such things as the center. Besides, city officials didn't want the neighbors (read that voters) angry. The fight was on.

The sensible solution is to use the Wildlife Service property overlooking Kings Bay as a manatee protection center. Officials can do their work and look out the window to see that divers don't harass manatees in Kings Bay.

Sometime down the road, they might think about establishing a Diver and Snorkler License Division at the house and require people who want to swim with the manatees to undergo Manatee-Watching Manners training before they hit the water. Patrol officers could issue tickets to unlicensed manatee-watchers or those DWL (Diving Without a License).

People who like to see manatees without donning a wet suit can go on down the road to Homosassa.

That way, two cities prosper, and thousands of manatee lovers are happy.

And Lucifer, the innocent anachronism, can be assured a steady supply of cabbages.